A relationship that didn’t work out.
A career opportunity that passed us by.
A sacrifice that wasn’t worth it in the end.
Very few of us are strangers to the sting of wishing things had gone differently.
And while regret is a normal human experience, intense regret can be painful and overwhelming.
So here are three questions that can shift your perspective.
1. In what ways was my decision understandable?
As time goes by, it’s easy to forget the complex reasons for our decisions. Instead, we believe we somehow should have known how things would turn out, even when it was not possible to predict,
Psychology calls this hindsight bias.
In truth, there may have been plenty of good reasons to make the decision we did, and plenty of outcomes we could not have anticipated.
For example, whether the decision to attend college turns out to be the best one for a given person depends on multiple factors, many of which are difficult to foresee, such as:
Changes in the economy
Changes in a person’s interests
Changes in life circumstances over time
The shifting value of a particular degree in the job market.
Being compassionate about ourselves
A self-compassionate approach is more likely to help us learn from our mistakes and move on.
In one study, participants who spontaneously described regret experiences in a more self-compassionate way were rated by outside observers as demonstrating more self-improvement in relation to their regret
2. What good things came from my decision and what bad things were avoided?
Regret tends to involve focusing on the negatives of what happened and the positives of what might have been.
One way to ease regret is to flip this on its head:
What are the positives of what happened and the negatives of what might have been?
The first question is more straightforward. It involves finding the silver linings. And dear reader, the silver linings are always there...you just have to look for them.
E.g., “Maybe I got married too young, but now I have three wonderful kids.”
Or “I didn’t take the higher paying job, but it allowed me to have more work-life balance.”
Other research has found that the ability to find meaning in lost opportunities, whatever form they take, is associated with maturity and happiness.
Finding the negatives in what might have been is more complicated because they are hypothetical, making them harder to imagine.
In other words, we just CANNOT know what would have happened if we’d remained unmarried or taken that job.
Though there is no need to dwell on potential catastrophes, recognizing that major downsides were possible—and were averted—can help put things into perspective.
The “it could have been worse” mindset is called downward counterfactual thinking and is associated with emotional benefits.
3. What does this tell me about the kinds of things I might regret doing or not doing now when I look back in the future?
When it is possible, we can take some sort of corrective action to:
Rekindle a lost relationship
Go back to school, or
Make amends for a mistake.
But research suggests that regret is often most powerful when there is no going back. It’s especially painful when something that could have been changed at one time is no longer possible to change.
But dear reader...All hope is not lost!
But just because the past can’t be undone doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Our biggest regrets reveal what we value most and can point us in a direction that is less likely to result in regret later on.
If you regret not spending more time with loved ones in the past, are there ways to make more time now with those who are still with you?
In one study, women who made regret-related “midcourse corrections,” such as career changes in midlife, reported greater well-being and less rumination, compared to those who did not make changes.
We cannot change our past, but we can affect our future!
Sometimes we’re so focused on reprimanding our past selves that we forget to consider our future selves, the ones who will be looking back on our present selves
Studies have shown that these future selves are hard to vividly imagine; they feel distant and abstract, making us less concerned with their well-being. But we will be in their shoes before we know it, so it’s worth asking ourselves:
“Years from now, what might I wish I was doing differently at this time?”
It’s hard to go through life without experiencing some level of regret.
Every decision has its downsides, and even the safest bets are no guarantee of happiness. Part of what makes regret so heavy is the feeling that something valuable has been irrevocably lost.
In some cases, there are very real losses to grieve.
But there are also unexpected second chances, happy twists of fate, and new beginnings we never could have planned.