We all have a few regrets, some to do with family or personal choices, and others that have affected our education and careers. Some people learn from their regrets and move on, while others dwell on them, sometimes to the point of being consumed by regret.
Psychologists, sociologists and even neuroscientists have studied regret and found that people most regret lost opportunities. When you regret that you failed to attend an important meeting, you know you can’t go back in time and ask for a “do-over.” The meeting happened, you weren’t there, and a colleague received the plum assignment you coveted.
A recent study using functional MRI (fMRI) scanned the brains of young people averaging age 25, healthy people around age 66, and depressed people averaging age 66. The researchers watched in real time as participants played a computer game that had participants opening virtual boxes containing money or an emblem that represented a loss of all money won in the game to that point. The study subjects were also shown how much more they could have won if they had played the game differently.
The study revealed that for the 25-year-olds and depressed seniors, regret (about how they had played) resulted in a stress response that lasted longer than it did with the healthy seniors. The longer stress response caused them to use worse judgment as they continued playing the game, whereas the healthy seniors used the information to actually play the game differently and increase their winnings. The healthy seniors’ brains were “actively working to successfully regulate the pain of regret” and put it to good use.
Other studies have shown that on average, older people have less intense negative or stress-related emotions, much like the group in the fMRI study who did not process regret negatively, which tells us that we can learn to have more constructive responses to regret. And middle-aged adults who focus on future consequences, or how to avoid a negative outcome, experience less intense regret after a negative experience. In other words, they learn from their mistakes.
Keeping all of this in mind, here are a few tips for making regret work for, rather than against, you (with my personal favorites in bold):
1. Don’t knock or ignore regret; it has its place. Regret can motivate action, whether it’s corrective or a new opportunity you’re determined not to miss this time around.
2. Having said that, dwelling on mistakes made or actions not taken is unhealthy and can lead to professional inertia, chronic stress, or even depression and poor physical health.
3. Some studies show that regrets to do with lost loves and missed personal opportunities can weigh more heavily than can career and educational regrets. If you’ve experienced both, you might need help sorting out your reactions. Sometimes, people compensate in one area of their life to make up for a regret that’s really about something else altogether. For example, you might drive yourself crazy searching for the perfect partner or relationship because you feel you shorted yourself professionally.
4. Learn from others too. Mentors, parents and peers have different experiences, regrets and reactions. Many professionals mention regrets such as choosing pay over satisfaction in their careers, for example. Absorb all you can about what others around you have learned.
What regret-handling tactics have made a difference for you?