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Is Regret Ever Useful?

Some people deny feeling regret. Is it realistic to live life without regrets?

Key points

  • Many people have the goal of living without regret, but learning from regret can be useful in many contexts.
  • Anticipating regret can lead to more thoughtful actions that improve one's life or the lives of others.
  • Regret that is expressed with skill can save relationships.
Burst/Unsplash License, used with permission.
Source: Burst/Unsplash License, used with permission.

Some people will tell you that they never regret what they have done and they just move on to the next thing. The goal is to live a life with no regrets. Is this realistic?

I think this is unrealistic for a number of reasons. I would suggest that to live a full life is to have some regrets and, hopefully, learn from them.

Emotions have utility

All emotions evolved because they had some utility—in many cases, protecting our evolutionary ancestors from disaster. Fear of heights, the dark, animals, strangers, the water, closed spaces, and other potential dangers have become universal fears found in all cultures. Fears protect.

The same with emotions such as jealousy, envy, anger, and regret. Jealousy is a form of mate guarding that we find in many species that protect the genetic investment. Envy—the discomfort of knowing someone is doing better than you are doing—is found in species where there are dominance hierarchies. Losing status in the hierarchy reduces the likelihood of passing on your genes. Status has advantages—procreation, better food, alliances that can help you, and many other factors.

Regret can be useful

And regret is useful in some contexts. For example, kids who express regret are better able at making decisions and better at regulating their emotions. They learn from their mistakes and they self-correct. They can anticipate how things might not work out so they can then avoid making more mistakes, and they have better skills in regulating emotion because they don’t act impulsively. They anticipate regret and decide to take a different course of action.

Anticipating regret can help increase compliance with taking medication. When patients are asked to imagine how they would be if they had a serious stroke, they are more likely to take their medication for hypertension. When younger people are asked to imagine what they will look like and how they will live in their late sixties, they increase their saving rates now.

People who are manic often don’t anticipate regretting their risky behavior. They may act impulsively, become hostile, misuse drugs and alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior or spend money they don’t have. Mania is often the failure to anticipate later regret. I have found that bipolar patients who can look back at their manic episodes and remember the mistakes that they made will be less likely to act impulsively in the future. And more likely to take their mood-stabilizing medications.

Even guilt—which I view as regret on steroids—can be helpful. We know that people who are sincere in their remorse when making an apology are more likely to be forgiven for their mistakes. Their regret—expressed with skill—helps save their relationships. Even in the workplace, the research shows that people who are viewed as having the capacity for guilt are trusted more and work more effectively in groups.

Imagine this: You are single and you hope to find a life partner that you can trust through all the ups and downs of a full life. You meet someone you like. They tell you, “I am incapable of regret, incapable of guilt." Would you bank your future on them or run the other way?


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