90 percent of us have big regrets: dealing with it is a crucial skill for healthy living

By Saybrook University

Maybe an unexamined life is a little more worth living than we thought:  recent research has shown that wallowing in regret can lead to feeling stressed, anxious, unhappy about life … and even impact physical health.

A study in the recent issue of the  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that about 90 percent of adults have deep regrets about their lives, and that the more they dwell on it the worse their quality of life tends to get.  If we all have big regrets – and it looks like we virtually all do – then managing regret is a crucial life skill.

How do we do that?

Current research in psychology and sociology has begun to focus in on self-regulation processes – a person’s ability to come up with ways to manage how they feel at any given moment. For example, someone may self regulate, ease their pain, about losing a job by thinking about the homeless person on the street.

Previous research has shown that this works for regrets, too: in general people feel better about lost chances or regrets when they think about others who are worse off than they are. Say for instance, someone is mulling over losing an opportunity to travel around the world when they were in college. Thinking about others who never had the opportunity to go to college tends to be an effective way to ease the pain of regretting that missed trip.

Bauer and Wrosch tested two hypotheses about self-regulation and regrets:


1)      That we feel better about lost opportunities when we see that others have lost similar opportunities and that getting access to these opportunities was not easy

2)      That feelings of regret are not related to age. We are as likely to feel the loss of opportunities at any age.


Their research indicates that both of these hypotheses are true.  What this suggests is that regret isn’t a phase we go through or a feeling we “deal with,” but a fundamental question of the way we find meaning in our lives.

In existential-humanistic psychology regrets are associated with finding meaning in our existence through our experiences. Without meaning, there is regret. An article published in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, “Existential Regrets: A Crossroads of Existential Anxiety and Existential Guilt” provides a definition of existential regret:  a “profound desire to go back and change a past experience in which one has failed to chose consciously or has made a choice that did not follow one’s beliefs, values, or growth needs.”

Existential regret may seem far more profound than the type of regret that Bauer and Wrosch were looking at in their research but it’s not. Regret is regret. It’s about making choices that are ultimately in line with our values and the kind of person we want to be. A trip around the world could have been incredibly transformative.  There may be good reasons that someone wouldn’t go … perhaps the young college student felt they needed to stay home and work part time to support their family.  But even in cases when both the choice to go and to not go are in line with their values, one can regret … profoundly and existentially … making a choice that cut off an avenue for meaningful personal growth.  That’s why regert doesn’t necessarily go away with age. 

At the same time looking at the lives of others reminds us that we are not just self-created … we are products of the world around us as well, inevitably “living for others” (in Satre’s phrase) and making the choices we have to make as well as the choices we want to.  Seeing this struggle in others can make us remember that we can not expect perfect results in our own struggle.  Being proud of the victories we have attained is a source of meaning, and one that we are reminded of when we see those who have not been able to attain it.  Someone who feels regret for not taking a trip because he needed to take care of his family can feel pride in what he has accomplished when he hears about another family falling apart.

If that seems to accentuate the negative a bit much, there’s good news:  Another, more positive, strategy for dealing with regret is available.  According to Bauer’s and Wrosch’s research, people also self-regulated to ease the pain of regret by re-engaging with lost opportunities.

How did they do that? By looking at others in their lives that managed to accomplish their goals.

Recall those little success stories we hear on Oprah or read in the magazines by the checkout stand about the grandmother who decided to go back to college to complete her degree or the returning veteran who is an amputee post war who completes the marathon they always wanted to compete in. These types of stories can be just as helpful in self-regulating our regrets as comparing ourselves to others who are a little bit worse off in life. This type of self regulating the researchers found, seems to be far more healthy and provides a great opportunity for personal growth.

 — Makenna Berry