Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” was French singer Edith Piaf’s final hit. If your French is rusty, that song title translates to “No, I regret nothing at all,” which Piaf insisted was a reflection of her philosophy. But less than three years after singing that she had no regrets, she was dead at 47—drug addiction and hard living had taken their toll. Her final words were, “Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.”
The woman famous for having no regrets obviously had them. She was far from alone—a public opinion survey of 4,489 Americans conducted with Qualtrics suggests that 99% of us at least occasionally look back on our lives and wish we had done things differently, and 43% of us do so frequently or continually.
Regrets are viewed as negative forces in our positivity-promoting society. But the secret to life isn’t getting through it without accumulating any regrets. It’s keeping regrets in perspective…and learning to shape these powerful negative feelings into positive thoughts and actions.
BENEFITS OF REGRET
Research suggests that it’s possible to derive powerful benefits from regret…
Improved decision making: A 2021 study of senior business leaders by researchers at Bentley University found that reflecting on their regrets improves business leaders’ future decisions. The deeply unpleasant feeling of regret likely reminds them not to rush into decisions and/or to remain wary of past mistakes.
Improved performance: A 2019 study by researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that scientists who narrowly miss receiving prestigious grants go on to produce more hit research papers than those who are narrowly approved for grants. Missing out on grants triggers regret…but that appears to lead to self-improvement.
A more meaningful life: A 2017 study by another professor at Kellogg School of Management found that when people spend time thinking about what might have been if they’d made different choices, they tend to come away feeling a deeper sense of purpose in the life that they’re living, as well as elevated levels of spiritual feelings. Similarly, when researchers involved in a 2010 study at University of California’s Haas School of Business asked college students to imagine that they had selected a different school—and consequently were on a different campus with different friends—those students ended up sensing greater meaning in their friendships and college choices. When we regret a path not taken, it reminds us that our lives could have gone in a million different ways—that makes the path we did take seem very special, even miraculous.
REGRETS CAN WORK FOR YOU
If you push regrets from your mind, they’ll probably keep flooding back. Better strategy: Reshape the pain of regret from a suffocating force that holds you down into a jab with a stick that prods you forward—that’s still not pleasant, but it’s tolerable and potentially useful. To do this, complete as many of the following five steps as possible…
1. Undo the regret. If you regret becoming estranged from a family member, for example, reach out to see if the relationship can be revived. Undoing a regret doesn’t mean no trace of it will linger in your mind—even if an estranged relationship is revived, you’ll still regret the lost time and hurt feelings—but it does put a positive final chapter on what had been a purely negative story.
If there’s no way to fix what’s been broken, offer a sincere apology to someone who has suffered due to your mistake. If this person grants you forgiveness, it should help blunt the pain of the regret. If forgiveness isn’t offered, your apology could remind you not to define yourself by that mistake.
Regrets that involve long-ago inaction are tricky to undo. If you regret not spending more time with your children, there’s no way to undo that once those kids are grown. If you regret not marrying a long-ago love, it’s almost certainly too late to do so if he/she married someone else. If you regret not saving for retirement, there’s no realistic way to fix that once you’re retired.
Regrets of inaction grow more common as we grow older—surveys show that 20-year-olds generally have roughly as many regrets about things they’ve done as opportunities they’ve missed. But regrets about missed opportunities dramatically outnumber regrets about actions for people age 50 and up. Perhaps that’s because the older we get, the clearer it becomes that a missed opportunity was the best one that will ever come our way.
When it’s too late to undo an inaction: At least share the story of this regret with younger people, such as your grandchildren. Encourage them to grab opportunities when they arise. The possibility that someone else could learn from your mistake could add a positive note to your painful memory. Don’t be disheartened if these young people don’t immediately take the lesson to heart—it still might be useful to them down the road.
2. Search for the silver lining. When a regret comes to mind, complete the sentence, “That went terribly, but at least…” Ask yourself, In what way could the situation have gone worse? Maybe an investment you made fell sharply in value…but at least you didn’t put all of your savings into it. Maybe your marriage was a disaster…but at least you got some wonderful children out of it.
Finding the “at least”—and calling it to mind whenever the regret resurfaces—helps transform the regret from a wave of negative emotion into a more nuanced situation with plusses and minuses. Even if the minuses vastly outweigh the plusses, this forces you to start to think about the regret rationally.
3. Talk or write about the regret. Many people relive their regrets endlessly but never attempt to dissect them and understand what really happened and why—perhaps because digging deeper into these awful memories seems too painful. It turns out the opposite is true—closely examining negative events tends to reduce the pain they cause.
A 2006 study by a psychology professor at University of California, Riverside found that talking or writing about a negative experience for 15 minutes a day for three consecutive days boosted the writer’s psychological well-being in ways that simply thinking about the experience did not. When we think about a regret, we might tell ourselves that we’re sorting through what happened, but there’s a good chance that we’re letting the regret remain a mental abstraction—a big, ill-defined cloud of negativity that we’re afraid to examine closely. When we write or speak out loud about the regret, we force ourselves to analyze our thoughts on the subject, and that can help us see our regrets for what they truly are—ordinary missteps, not evidence that we’re fools or monsters.
Interestingly, researchers also found that it’s best not to talk or write much about life’s happy memories. Analyzing these too closely tends to sap the sense of joy they provide, just as analyzing regrets saps their sorrow.
4. Practice self-compassion. Do you dress yourself down about your regrets with endless thoughts such as, How could I have been so stupid? Or perhapsr build yourself up, filling your inner monolog with mental pep talks such as, You can overcome this. It turns out that the best self-talk strategy for rebounding from regret is…neither of those.
Instead, treat yourself with the same understanding you would offer a friend if he/she made the mistake—this is known as self-compassion. When a regret nags at you, remind yourself that you’re not the first person to make this mistake and you won’t be the last. Self-compassion doesn’t let you off the hook, but it does normalize and neutralize your regrets.
Studies conducted by University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff, PhD, over the past 15 years found that self-compassion is linked with optimism, happiness, wisdom, initiative and mental toughness…and it’s negatively correlated with depression, anxiety and shame.
5. Study your regrets from a distance. The powerful negative emotions attached to regret can make it hard to learn from the mistake—the pain and shame overwhelm objective analysis.
Try this: Imagine that your misstep was committed by someone else and that you’re a “doctor of regret sciences.” Your job is to examine your patient’s missteps and prescribe the best response to them and lessons that can be drawn. E-mail your findings to yourself as if sending them to the patient—refer to the person who made the misstep as “you,” not “I.” Studies conducted by researchers at University of Illinois and University of Pennsylvania and researchers at University of Michigan found that using the pronoun “you” normalizes negative experiences, helps people find meaning in them and deepens their commitment to improving behavior.
If a regret is a fresh wound, imagine that 10 years have passed and that you’re looking back on the event. What really happened? What can you learn from this? A 2015 study by University of California researchers found that this time-shift trick reduces stress and improves problem-solving ability.