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Why it is good to feel regret

In Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski explores regret – that sinking, nagging feeling we get when we realise we have made the wrong choice, or when things have not gone the way we hoped or imagined they would.

But, rather than trying to eradicate this negative feeling, is it something we should learn to embrace?

How to manage regrets and move forward

Regret can keep us looking back, rather than moving forward. If you find yourself overwhelmed by regrets, or one particular regret, then the approaches below might help you:

• Accept that making mistakes is part of life – none of us are perfect! Humans are fallible and some regret is inevitable.

• See a bad decision as an opportunity to learn. Let your regrets guide you to make better decisions going forward. You can’t change the past but you can affect the future! Focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t.

Avoid self-shaming. Rather than thinking, “I shouldn’t have done that”, say to yourself, “I’ll learn from this and do better next time.”

Share your regrets to help others. Telling other people about your regrets will help them too if they are faced with similar decisions.

Focus on the good decisions you made and the things you did well. Even with a regrettable situation there will be things that you did right.

• If your regrets are about how your actions affected other people, then apologise. Rather than dwelling on it, take positive action to right the wrongs.

• If negative thoughts are taking over, take a moment to breathe deeply and practice some simple mindfulness techniques.

What is regret?

Amy Summerville is a professor in Social Psychology at Miami University in Ohio, where she studies regret. In simple terms, she says, “regret is feeling bad because things could have been better if we had done something differently in the past.” It’s a central part of decision-making and how we feel about the choices we make and, Amy says, “by some estimates it’s the most common negative emotion that people feel in their daily lives.”

Whether it’s triggered by an experimental haircut, being unfaithful in a relationship, or drinking too much the night before – regret involves what Amy calls “counterfactual thoughts”: “You’re having to construct how the world might be different under some other set of circumstances, so how would your life be different right now if you had decided to go to medical school instead of pursuing the career that you did?” Whatever the cause, regret can sit with us for hours, days, years – or haunt us forever.

Does modern life mean more regrets?

Amy believes that we experience more regret than we did in the past, because of the abundance of choice we have as a result of modern technology. Choices underlie regret – so the more we have, and the more options we can see, the more chances to regret our decisions.

“We’ll start seeing regrets that mirror those choices that technology is affording,” Amy says. For instance, when we see hundreds of photos of other people’s desirable holiday destinations on social media it’s easy to regret our own travel decisions. Technology also means that we have to make much faster decisions, without perhaps putting enough time into making those choices. A recipe for regret!

Why do we regret?

Why do we all experience this “would have, should have, could have” obsession? “Our minds”, Aleks says, “are built to have good feelings about ourselves, so there must be an evolutionary reason for this negative emotion.”

Regrets are also how we learn about ourselves, and know what it is we really want.

The most obvious answer is that it’s a psychological check on our inbuilt compulsivity. As Aleks says, for regret to happen “there’s an either or – you have to have a choice.” And if you get it wrong you have regrets, and know not to make the same mistakes in the future. Feeling regret reminds us to think carefully about our decisions and helps us not to make the same mistakes again.

Regrets are also how we learn about ourselves, and know what it is we really want. In feeling regret, we have clarity about what outcome and things we truly want for ourselves. As James Joyce wisely said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

So maybe regret isn’t such a bad thing

Regret, then, is a valuable psychological tool. As Aleks says, “Regret can make us do better in the future.” Regret is also, Amy says, “something that signals to people that we’re learning from our experiences and that we’re going to make changes as a result. Not having that emotional reaction is really actually kind of troubling if there is harm that’s happening.”

We should start to see regret as a way to benefit: a cue to acknowledge our weaknesses and change for the better.

We should all embrace regret

Regret is a regrettable part of being human. As Aleks says, “We make choices, and we have to face the consequences.” But, regrets “help us to understand ourselves and the world around us. And that may open our eyes to being much more present in the moment.”

We can’t control the outcomes of some of our decisions but if we accept that regret is a natural human emotion, which helps us to make better decisions as we move forward, we can learn to love – rather than regret – feeling regret.