Why Are We Afraid of Having Regrets?

When we feel regret, when we feel guilty and embarrassed by what we do, we are motivated to undo any wrongful things we did and make better, more careful decisions in the future.
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When I give seminars at colleges and corporations, I ask if anyone is living a life without regrets. If so, I ask them to raise their hand. More than 8 out of 10 people look me in the eye and with great pride, shoot their hands into the air. 80% of people living an entire life without any regrets. Either I am surrounded by the most mindful, compassionate communicators and problem-solvers in the world or what I am witnessing is how concerned people are about their public image.

As scientists, we have learned a lot about regret. The Butthole Surfers, a punk rock band in the 80's, captured the findings best in their lyrics to "Sweet Loaf" off their album Locust Abortion Technician:

Daddy, what does regret mean?
Well son, the funny thing about regret is,
It's better to regret something you have done,
Than to regret something you haven't done.

While I do listen to the Butthole Surfers on occasion, you might be surprised to know that they are not the definitive authority on the subject. I define regret as what we feel when we realize that our current situation might be better if we decided to act differently. It's a backward looking, unpleasant feeling where you blame yourself and wish you could undo the past. Perhaps you felt regret when you shared the good news with coworkers that your heroin problem last year should have little impact on your pregnancy. Or when you told your kids to shut the $%# up after listening to them whine for four hours on a car trip.

Here are a few interesting scientific discoveries about regret to meditate on:

1. You rarely find regret in young children. Seven-year-olds make a comparison about what happened and what might have been. They can imagine that their present situation would be better if they made better decisions in the past. Younger children still relish a sweet, oblivious state of mind. But there is nothing our three to five year olds can do. Eventually, like the rest of us, they will ruminate, and toss and turn through sleepless nights. Bide your time and schadenfreude will be yours!

2. To feel regret, you have to recognize the consequences of what you did or didn't do. You need to be introspective and patient to know whether an action not taken was a poor choice. It takes a long time to discover that visiting Moscow as a single, heterosexual, 20-something male would have been a smart decision (in case you didn't know, there are legions of intelligent, attractive women). The same goes for decisions about careers and voting for political candidates. We often don't find out the benefits of the paths not taken until later. Have you felt screwed for not knowing that you could make a living by testing video games for Microsoft? How many political candidates %$# you over by failing to deliver on what they promised?

3. Most regrets concerning inaction are less troublesome to us. While we get upset, these feelings are often less intense than regrets about action taken. There are often immediate repercussions for poorly chosen behavior. You get suckered by a gypsy scam while walking along Las Ramblas in Barcelona (one gypsy distracts you by getting into a violent argument with someone while another gypsy picks your pockets). Instead of resisting your email for three minutes, you whip out your iPhone while in the bathroom and lo and behold, your slippery fingers deliver it to the toilet bowl. Immediate, painful regret for actions taken.

4. Regret for inaction or paths not taken do not go away as easily. They linger and fester in our brains. While we actively cope with poorly chosen behavior, options foregone lead us to wonder incessantly. Regardless of what unsatisfying car you buy, it can still be compared to even worse models that other people are driving. But what about the beautiful stranger that you had a deep, emotional connection with after seven hours of breathtaking conversation that you failed to follow through on? It haunts you because you will never find out whether you made the right call.

5. Regret exists because it is useful. When we feel regret, when we feel guilty and embarrassed by what we do, we are motivated to undo any wrongful things we did and make better, more careful decisions in the future. Regret is unavoidable because there are opportunity costs for every choice made. When you select a path, you immediately forfeit other choices and their benefits.

Regret is common. Whether we acknowledge these feelings to others is a separate issue. Yesterday, after a series of mental gymnastics by Obama on whether a mosque should be built in New York City near Ground Zero he responded to a curious public, "The answer is no, I have no regrets." I will tell you why this scares me. I will tell you why I am always scared when people tell me they have no regrets. We learn and grow from our regrets.

People that try to minimize regret often feel a sense of anxiety and paralysis where they are more focused on not making errors and mistakes and less focused on taking calculated risks toward difficult, aspirational goals. To be succinct, without regrets, you are done evolving, you will be ineffective at coping with an uncertain, unpredictable world where mistakes are inevitable.

Admit that you have regrets and you are basically saying that I am open-minded and willing to take calculated risks with a desire to continually grow and learn. Sounds good to me.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life." For more about his speaking engagements, books, and research, go to www.toddkashdan.com or Research Laboratory.

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