If I asked you, “Can you say you don’t have any regrets in your life?” what would you say? I would then annoy you with a follow-up question, “Are you sure?” Then you might think I’m being condescending, but the truth is I only wanted you to rethink whether you understand what it really means to have regrets.
In this article I want to shed light on all the (hopefully helpful) mantras we hear everywhere:
No regrets! YOLO! Carpe diem!
What’s the fuss all about? Do people who say them or have them tattooed on their foreheads know what’s up? Or are they just wanting to do something “daring,” at the risk of having even more regrets?
“No regrets!” for example, should be easy to understand, but context matters.
The next questions then follow: What’s the context? Is there a right or wrong one?
Let’s move on and find out.
What Is Regret?
For most of my life, I’ve been seeing regret in a different light. I can think of a couple of huge regrets I have, but I used to see them as nothing but embarrassing mistakes I wish people have already forgotten about them. Where are those people now? Maybe it would be best if I never saw them again.
I had it wrong. I didn’t understand the whole point of regrets. Sure, they might relive the shame they bear, but regrets aren’t about that.
Scientists define regret as the negative emotion (or emotional reaction) that results from thinking about how something might have turned out had we made a different decision. By some estimates, regret is the most common negative emotion we experience in daily life.
Here’s an interesting bit. The concept of regret extends back to ancient Greece where people had the notion of “human beings,” but of “mortals” and “immortals.” They had the idea about how human beings could live like the gods. It was a nice aspiration and belief, but it also yielded regret—no matter how hard they tried, they could never live like the gods. This is a case in which regret happens not out of a decision, but out of mere disappointment.
When Regret Is Bad for Your Health
The hackneyed expression, “Don’t dwell on the past,” has its scientific foundations as far as regret is concerned.
This study found that repetitive regret—the experience of having the same regret repeatedly coming to mind—is predictive of general distress. This is mainly because there’s a recurring focus on the negative emotions that come with it, and also because of the self-blaming for making the wrong decision.
Cognitive reappraisal comes to mind. It is basically changing our perspective on a particular stressor so that our emotions are in turn regulated, thus we can function anyway, despite the presence of that stressor.
Research says the absence of regrets has been associated with mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. Without regrets we can’t develop mental skills (like thinking about what could have been, a skill that reflects that of problem solving), and thus social dysfunction, which are widely observed in schizophrenia.
Similarly, repetitive regret causes vulnerability to depression.
Regret sure gets some bad publicity.
Anyway, we don’t stop here. Regret certainly caught my attention that I got excited to learn more about it.
Let’s keep going.
The Three Theories of Regret
In an attempt to gain more understanding, let’s examine three ways to look at regret, specifically at the intensity of regret.
1. The Temporal Theory of Regret
This theory states that actions produce greater regret in the short term, while inactions yield more regret in the long run. However, this theory doesn’t seem to prove true in all situations. One study stated that it found no evidences for such theory.
2. The Decision-Justification Theory of Regret
The level of justification for a decision, according to this theory, is inversely proportional to the intensity of regret. In other words, even if you’ve made a terrible decision, as long as it was justified well, you’re not likely to regret it so much.
3. The Belonging Theory of Regret
Regrets experienced in social domains are more intense than those in non-social areas. Regrets that involve your family and friends, for example, would feel much worse than the regret about buying an overpriced and overrated smartphone.
Can you relate your regrets to any of these theories?
Think about a couple of your regrets, better if they’re from 20 years ago or so. Under which theories do they fall?
Take mental notes of such matches. At this point you should be able to understand their nature, or practically, why they bother you whenever you remember them.
However, there’s another way of understanding regret, which I think is more important.
The Trinity of Self
According to researchers, we have a Trinity of Self: the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self.
The ideal self is the one we want to become as a whole. You may call it your best or ultimate self.
The ought self is like the ideal self but, in addition, fulfills its social role. In other words, this self operates according to what society expects from it.
Research shows that we have regrets of inaction with our ideal selves, and regrets of action with our ought selves.
Again, regrets of inaction tend to cause the most long-term sorrow. Here’s why.
First let’s take a look at regrets associated with the ought self. These action-based regrets can be “repaired” immediately due in part to their being social in nature. They can be easily seen by others.
For example, you choose to stay at work for three more hours. Your toddler throws a fit because he’s used to seeing you in the evening. You can always say sorry and perhaps make it up to him by, say, going to the mall on the weekend.
Doing this “reparative solution” can make you feel like you’re “fixing” your regret because the solution cancels out the regret.
On the other hand, we can usually divert our attention from regrets of inaction to something else. Or just shrug them off. But these small regrets over time become bigger and bigger due to the feeling that we still haven’t resolved them.
Unlike regrets with the ought self, only you know about your regrets with your ideal self; there’s no social proof of you coming to terms with them and thus it would feel like they’re unresolved.
What we want is to lessen the gaps between the actual self and both the ideal and the ought selves.
But is that possible?
What You May Get Wrong about Regret
The thing about regret is that it’s often viewed as something negative. People think regrets are dead ends with a huge sign that says “DISGRACE.” Therefore they would avoid going to these dead ends, especially when they’re with other people. They would hide their regrets (along with the ugly stories) and would never deal with them again.
In other words, they don’t come to terms with their regrets.
And that is where we may get it wrong.
Because another thing about regret is that even though there are regrets in choosing Decision A over Decision B, there would still be regrets in choosing otherwise. We can always justify any decision, thus rendering the whole point of regretting it meaningless.
You’ve made a choice, and that’s it. There’s no direction to take from here on out but to embrace—and love—your choices, and thus your regrets.
This is the philosophy encapsulated in the two words, amor fati, or the “love of fate.”
Amor fati is the original and true “No regrets!”—true in the sense that you embrace the choices you make, whether they’re daring or not, whether you’re going to regret them or not. It’s about embracing reality as it is.
In contrast, the modern “No regrets,” “YOLO” and whatnot may usually even mean the opposite. These terms tend to associate with hedonistic behaviors; one most likely regrets decisions that follow.
In effect, these contemporary sayings (“No regrets,” etc.) become fear-based because one would avoid the reality of the consequences of their decisions. People who live this principle do not seriously think about the future—or even the present—because they only want to satisfy an urge right now—nothing more—with no concerns whatsoever for immediate outcomes.
The courage-based amor fati, on the other hand, teaches us to become more conscious of our lives as a result of all the decisions and actions we’ve made, and thus pushes us to work more diligently to become the person we aspire—whether it’s the ideal self or the ought self.
The mustachioed Nietzsche used the concept of amor fati in his search for the true way of living the good life. He was confronted with two extreme positions: the ascetic position in which the good life means forgoing human desires, and its opposite, the hedonistic carpe diem position.
However, these two positions did not matter to Nietzsche.
Embracing our mortality rather than avoiding it with regret, he said, is what matters.
Regret is the vehicle for us to wake up and change our lives. We can take two steps:
- If you choose wrong, forget about it, accept it, and love it.
- From now on, be aware of your mortality.
The opposite of Nietzsche’s philosophy is what some pop psychology sources lead us to believe: escapism. It’s forgetting about our dead ends that we don’t learn from them. It’s running away from regret and diverting our thoughts and energies to something else in an attempt to “reset” that part of our lives that didn’t seem to end up so well. “Forgetting” in the context of escapism becomes different from that of amor fati.
My first encounters with the term, “Live life with no regrets!” were with blogs I had no idea who wrote them. It took a while, but all they essentially said was “No regrets! It’s okay to make mistakes! Now forget about them and the lessons you’ve learned and make many more mistakes! YOLO, young blood, you!”
Apparently there are many ways someone can make you feel good—but unfortunately don’t help. However, there are other ways—although harder, but based on reality—you can try. The harder directions help you grow faster.
Lessons from the Elderly
If you haven’t noticed already, regret is actually good for us. Recent research tends to reinforce Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Regret is an indicator about the presence of our problems and in effect prods us to learn.
Acknowledging regrets is positively related to life satisfaction, physical health, and cumulatively, mood. According to this study, there are three ways its 60-year-old respondents dealt with regret:
- Never coming to terms with regret. For example, one blames herself for dropping out of school. She feels nothing but remorse over the matter.
- Putting the best face on things. Following the previous example, the dropout avoids harping on her regret by starting a small business. She directs this negative energy into something positive.
- Coming to terms with regret. She accepts her past decisions and thinks she made them due to her circumstances. Staying in school was merely impractical at that time.
The latter two have a positive effect on our wellbeing. Take note that the study was done with senior citizens. Don’t they remind us of the importance of dealing with our regrets as soon as possible and making the best out of our days moving forward?
The Most Common Regrets
A 1986 study found that the younger participants had regrets related to romance and careers more than the older ones. On the other hand, the older participants expressed more regrets about their families and not having spent more time with them.
The most frequently cited regrets were about missed educational opportunities and failure to have been more assertive and to have taken more risks; taking more risks was noted as the only difference between the most and the least satisfied of the participants.
A national survey about regrets of the typical American found 13 sources of regret—in this order—romance, family, education, career, finance, parenting, health, “other,” friends, spirituality, community, leisure, and self.
Another study conducted with senior citizens reveals a common remark: “I regret that I worried so much about everything.”
Last but not least, a study with low income individuals mentions regrets on education, career and marriage being common. But regrets were higher for issues related to money, family conflict and children’s problems, loss and grief, and health.
These are some of the most common regrets. If you think your regrets are unique, then they may only be specific but still fall under one of the above.
If that’s true, then it only strengthens the idea that we are not really unique after all. Many others also go through similar regrets—and problems—we have. That’s not surprising; those many others are also human.
Here’s another point I would like to stress: No matter who you are—young, old, high-income, low-income, male, female—you have those few huge regrets that will matter. Only a few. We only need a few things to live the good life. Similarly, we only need a few inevitable regrets to turn our lives around.
The regrets identified above generally fall under two main types of regret, then:
- Regret about not doing one’s best
- Regret about relationships
These two types conform with the Trinity of Self I previously discussed—the first being related to the ideal self, and the second to the ought self.
Keep These in Mind
Now we know what regret is, what it’s not, and what some people believe it should be.
I’m now going to end this post with a few things to keep in mind if you’re having regrets—whatever they are and whatever their intensity.
1. Be Aware of Your Mortality
In a sense, our biggest regrets are the most important lessons learned the hard way. As Nietzsche said, regret can change our lives, if we let it.
2. The Things beyond Your Control
The only thing you have complete control over is yourself. Therefore you can still make the best out of every situation, which is usually outside your control. Avoid making excuses, justifying, and blaming. Be wise with your decisions. But understand this truth.
Science tells us that mindfulness helps us to accept who we are—including our successes and failures—and to continue building significant relationships with those around us.
4. Let Reason Guide You
We are emotional creatures, more than logical. This trait has helped us thrive as a species; however, it can be detrimental when it comes to dealing with regret. We use our mind to understand what went wrong—this is how we change our lives. In other words, don’t regret your regrets—it’s a waste of time.
5. Regret Strengthens Relationships
A study on Tweets showed that when people wanted to feel closer to others, they were more likely to express regrets. Look at that: regret is good for relationships—a common source of it!
My take on this is that coming to terms with regret may mean reconciling with the important people we’ve had a difficult relationship with.
6. Don’t Worry, Solve a Problem
Worrying is mostly a waste of precious time. When we worry, we only worry about things that may not actually happen, when we could look to solving a concrete problem instead. Solving concrete problems reduces the regrets we have throughout our lifetime.
7. Mental Health at Risk
Repetitive regret, as I’ve discussed, is linked to negative mental health consequences. Love your regrets and move on.
8. Decision Making Is Part of Life
We make the right ones and the wrong ones. Therefore wrong decisions, and the regrets that follow, are also part of life. That’s the beauty of it—we’ll never learn without mistakes.
9. You Got This
Perhaps like some people, you might think your regrets have brought you wherever you are right now, and it’s not an ideal place. But you might also be forgetting that you’re still in the process. You have yet to sail your ship to the uncharted seas of your life. It’s not the end. You just have to try again.
Live Life with No Regrets: What Does It Mean?
Maybe it’s going to occur to you, too, that some clichés will change their meaning over time. Certainly did to me. Many people speak of them, but in ways I don’t agree on anymore.
The dictionary defines regret as:
Noun: Sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair
I find the irony just beautiful.
In the context of changing one’s life, I would imagine a person going through adversity or suffering. Circumstances would need time-bound solutions. The need to get better is somewhat obvious.
But to use sorrow to change your life? I haven’t thought about it that way. Sorrow is an emptiness that doesn’t go away. It’s something that comes after adversity or suffering. It can be a feeling only you can understand. It can be the dead end.
To be honest, I’m not sure whether I’ve felt that kind of sadness. But I believe regret has the power—not necessarily to save us from sorrow—but to show us the other side of it. It’s the other side we want.
What are your sorrows? What are your regrets? Are you still living in them? Or have you accepted them and are now ready for your best life yet?
There are two ways of dealing with things. One is the easy way. The other liberates us.