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Does Time Heal Regret?

Do we regret most what we don't do or say?

"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time. It is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable." - Sydney Harris (American Journalist).

"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for things left unsaid and deeds left undone." - Harriet Beecher Stowe

It is said that time heals all wounds. But does it heal regret? For all of our sakes, since a regret free life is pretty much impossible, we should hope so.

A review of the empirical research on regret (by Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec of Cornell University, published in Psychological Review) suggests that time does heal some regrets.

This review divided regrets into two types. Errors of commission occur when we regret something that we did. Errors of omission occur when we do not do something we wish we would have. An error of commission would be something like being cruel to a co-worker or friend. An error of omission would be something like not pursuing a desired romantic relationship with someone.

It turns out that regrets for things we did not do - errors of omission - are less likely to fade with time than errors of commission. That is, over time, we are likely to regret more what we did not do, than what we did do.

Interestingly, this review concluded that the exact opposite occurs short term. In the short term, we are more likely to regret what we did (errors of commission) than what we did not do.

So does time heal regret? Well, yes, if it is an error of commission. But we rarely recover from the things that we did not do that we wish we had.

It appears that Stowe is right. The bitterest tears are over things left unsaid, and things left undone.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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