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The Meaning of Regret

You wouldn’t do it again, but does that have to mean you’re sorry it happened?

"Remorso de Judas," by Almeida Junior. Via wikimedia commons
Source: "Remorso de Judas," by Almeida Junior. Via wikimedia commons

Life’s too short to waste even one second of it on regrets.

Or so centenarians often tell us when they’re asked to share a crumb of wisdom from the cupboard. “Proceed boldly!” they say. “Don’t leave yourself open to saying, on your deathbed, ‘I wish I had…’”

Regret is the second-most common emotion people mention in daily life, some studies show. And it’s the most common negative emotion. We start expressing regrets at around the age of two—as soon as we’re able to articulate the concept of “If only…” And thereafter, we’re continually rewriting history in our heads instead of playing the cards in our hand. Counter-productive, right?

Not always.

It isn’t actually so bad to catch yourself thinking, I wish things had turned out differently—everyone does, the psychologist Amy Summerville noted recently. It’s what you think next that matters.

Summerville runs the Regret Lab at the University of Miami in Ohio. By her lights, regret is only toxic when it becomes habitual. That is, when we develop the reflex to chew and chew on an unfortunate turn of events, like a cow on its cud, till there’s not a lick of nutrition left in it. By contrast, as something to dial up and analyze once, a regrettable experience can be quite useful.

Stuff happens. Here are three ways to turn it into compost:

Reframe 1: Embrace the Learning Op

Something just went sideways. Now it’s up to you which side of the ledger to write that thing on: Bad Break or Lucky Break.

Whatever went wrong needs fixing (if indeed it can still be fixed). Since we tend to neglect even routine maintenance on things we don’t think need fixing, that insight alone is the first step to growth. Regret is a sign that you’re paying attention. You detected the problem. With the next step, wondering what you could have done differently, you’ve already started rewiring your circuitry, preparing it for a different response next time.

Regret spurs us to action—so long as we feel like we can still do something about it. And like a burr under the saddle, studies show, regret becomes more and more of an irritant the longer we fail to take action.

Reframe 2: It could have been worse

When we regretfully ask ourselves, "What if things had gone differently?" what we really mean is, “What if things had gone better?” But it’s equally valid to ask, "What if things had gone worse?"

During the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich noticed something strange at the awards ceremonies. When the cameras panned across the faces of the athletes on the podium, here’s what the viewers saw: the bronze medalists showed big smiles. The silver medalists showed decidedly more muted enthusiasm. Wait, what? Is it better to come in third than second?

Ask yourself: What’s the easiest alternative to imagine is for each athlete? The silver medalist just came within a whisker of being world champion. Gold medal. Endorsement riches. Speaking career. Wheaties Box. “Second place is just first place among losers,” as Nike’s Phil Knight used to say. No wonder she looks so glum. The silver medalist is sinking under the weight of a depressing “downward counterfactual”: What if I’d just given one percent more and won this friggen’ thing?

The bronze medalist, on the other hand, is riding an “upward counterfactual” to the sky. She really didn’t come that close to winning. She actually came closer to finishing in the dreaded fourth place, out of the medals, with nothing to show for years and years (really a whole lifetime) of effort. Whew! Close shave! But look, Mom, here I am! Like Ringo Starr, she is (as the Beatle drummer often said) “just happy to be here.” No wonder she’s beaming.

Studies of test-score satisfaction tell a similar story. Students who scored 89 were typically unhappier than students who scored 87. Both marks merited the same grade: a B-plus. But that 89, man, that’s so close to the coveted A. If I’d just concentrated a wee bit harder, or got 15 minutes more sleep instead of watching those cat videos. Whereas the student who pulled the 87, well, that’s really not all that close to an A. It’s actually closer to 85, a B. Props to me, the student says feeling lucky. But hey, you’ve gotta be good to be lucky, he thinks, and stands a little taller.

Reframe 3: Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Social science tells us that we ought to judge people’s behavior in context. What were the pressures or extenuating circumstances that might help explain the loopy thing this person just did?

Failing to properly consider context is a “fundamental attribution” error. An example is when we shirk blame for our own failures, chalking them up to bad luck/dust-in-the-eyes/lousy equipment/sunspots, instead of “owning” them.

But it can also happen that we own things that weren’t actually our fault, thereby beating ourselves up unnecessarily.

Last year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, NPR ran a story about Bob Ebeling, the NASA engineer who had tried to warn his higher-ups that it was too cold to launch that morning; those rubber-gasket “o rings” weren’t going to hold up.

In a devastating display of self-flagellation, Ebeling bore the weight of the astronauts’ deaths. It was his failing, he maintained, that he wasn’t persuasive enough to get the launch aborted. “I think that’s one of the mistakes God made,” Ebeling said. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job.”

There was such an outpouring of support for this humble man after the story aired that the station did a follow-up program. Ebeling was interviewed again. This time he said he felt buoyed and less regretful. The feedback and interviews with NASA brass helped him accept that the tragedy wasn’t his fault. That shuttle was going to fly and even the world’s best trial lawyer could not have changed those minds.

We tend to feel far less regretful when it wasn’t our fault.

The good news is that, as we grow older, that corrosive personal fault-finding seems to fade away. The older brain, new German research seems to confirm, is just less susceptible to regret. This may be nature’s way of saying, Hey, even if it were your fault, you don’t have time left to fix it anyway, so let it go.

So to recap: We can train ourselves to regret less, or to regret better, in at least the following three ways:

•To see a regretful outcome as a useful data point in our ongoing self-improvement project.

•To consider the worse fate we dodged, rather than the sweeter fate we missed out on.

•To be honest about where the fault lies in the regrettable thing, and cut ourselves some slack if it doesn’t lie with us.

Sometimes a past mistake is useful as a growth-op and sometimes it isn’t. The wisdom is in knowing the difference.

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