We all have regrets. We all think about what might have been, or the one that got away, but the author of a new study says we can learn to live with regret and benefit from it.
Dr Neal Roese is a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, and an expert on the subject of regret.
He joined Jim Mora to discuss a study he co-authored which looks at what the most common regrets people have at the end of their lives are, and how people tend to look back on their romantic and intimate relationships, both failures and successes, as they grow older.
Dr Roese says our most common regrets tend to centre on love and interpersonal relationships.
“That means romantic relationships, it means close friends, it means people that are meaningful to us in everyday life. Immediately after that are regrets that tend to focus on our work life. This could be career aspirations, it could be everyday work environment, it could be school or academic striving.”
He says personal relationships are of paramount importance in our lives.
“It’s something that perhaps we don’t always realise or don’t take fully into account, that we are fundamentally social creatures. And how we connect to - how we relate to others is very important to our well-being, very important to our physical health, but also our psychological well-being, especially as we get older."
The regrets that focus on friendships are not quite as high up as relationship regrets, but they are exceedingly important for our well-being as we get older, Dr Roese says.
“It’s something that a lot of us, increasingly in every day life, are neglecting. But, as we get older and we’re looking back on our lives, a lot of the time we’re focusing on our romantic relationships, our close coupling, our intimate relationships, and we see ways in which we could have done things better, ways in which we could have improved those relationships."
Research shows that the number of close friendships we have, the kinds of friendships where you’d share deeply held personal details or views are diminishing, Dr Roese says.
“We have fewer contacts, fewer ways of interacting with close friends, and this is especially the case for people who are working in demanding careers or demanding jobs. It’s unfortunate that we tend, in the modern world, to put our work first and then we see the importance of our romantic relationships and our family and our children and, so, friendships are left in the back seat, so to speak.”
He says it stems from the mixed blessing of modern life where having more choice leads to more regret.
“There are more ways in which we can see we might have chosen differently. Another point is, regret stems from having goals, it stems from having personal standards. As you strive to meet this or that goal, inevitably you’ll fall short and that’s where regret comes from. But regret, then, is a symptom of a life in which you do have goals, in which you do have aspirations.”
Having your choices constrained, he says, could actually make life easier.
"One of the paradoxes of our modern life is the proliferation of consumer products we can choose from, the number of ways in which we can spend our time, the number of ways in which we can go out and meet other people - all this variety of choice makes it harder for us to reach a satisfied state.
“There is a movement among some companies and some retailers to curate or constrain the range of choices for people so they have an easier time of it. And I think that’s a good lesson for life in general; if we could find ways to constrain our freedom of choice, we could end up being happier.”
Something Dr Roese found in surveys was that women were more likely to have relationship regrets while men were more likely to have career regrets.
He says that while it does reinforce ideas about gender - that women are more focused and better at caring and cultivating relationships, while men are focused on work - he believes the difference will go away with time, particularly career regrets.
“I have a feeling that there’s something very special in women to notice problems in relationships and to act on them.”
When it comes specifically to relationships, women tended to regret things they should not have done, while men regretted to things they should have done.
“Men are just a little bit more focused on getting ahead, gaining, or chasing after a possible romantic target, whereas women are more focused on a balance of protecting the things that they have and managing a relationship more successfully.”
Regrets also tend to change over time. Where in the short term people are more likely to regret things they have done, for instance, mistakes they’ve made, in the long term people regret the things they didn’t do.
“When there’s something that we might have had that got away from us, it’s more haunting because it’s really a matter of the imagination and our imaginations can run wild in a whole lot of different ways.”
Dr Roese says even if we could go back to age 19 in a time machine to act on our regrets, life is so complex that we’ll never run out of ways to make mistakes.
“I think you’d avoid some obvious mistakes that, in hindsight, you learned about, but you’d find new ways to mess up.
“The only people who live a life without a regret are people who have no goals, no aspirations in their life, because regret is a fundamental offshoot of us having goals and it’s inevitable that we will not meet all of our goals perfectly.”
Although we may have regrets, Dr Roese says one of the benefits of getting older is people tend to be happier. Most people find the period in their 30s and 40s most difficult when career pressures loom large and kids are at an age where they need constant care. But following that, pressure eases off and we gain a larger perspective on things.
“Even though there is the chance of finding more and more regrets accumulating, what our research tells us is that people are not dwelling on these regrets. In fact, people are putting them into a larger context, seeing greater meaning in the overall fabric of their life and, as a result, they’re feeling happier.”
Dr Roese has some tips for how we avoid regret and live a happier life in the moment:
“Go out and do things. That means, take a chance, go out and meet new people... Whatever it is, just do new things to push yourself out of the comfort zone because, as we know from the basic research, you are less likely to regret these positive steps you take than you are to regret inaction or not following through.
"And another thing is, once you take these positive steps, it may unlock all kinds of opportunities for great new friendships. But, if it doesn’t, you’ll probably rationalise it and you won’t regret it very strongly.”
He says people can also benefit from “looking downward”. He explains that when people have regrets it tends to be because they’re assessing situations that could have been better or could have improved their lives. Looking downward is looking at how different decisions or outcomes could have actually made life worse.
Finally, he says, don’t overreact. Negative events can feel overwhelming and powerful in the moment, but ultimately all and wounds heal with the passage of time.
“If we take that insight into the moment and think about the wider picture, the broader context, then we take some of the sting away.”
“All of us benefit from more knowledge and we all benefit from knowing ourselves more. I encourage every to think about where you are, and think about all the great things you’ve done already.”