“I’ve grown to learn regret is a fair but tough teacher. Regret is a function of empathy. So when people say, ‘I have no regrets’ I think that seems dangerous to me.” These were the surprising words of Brené Brown in an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. It goes against the “regret nothing” attitude of many self-development speakers and social media quotes, which tell us to live for the day, and only look forward.
But the truth is that most of us do have regrets. A third of Americans regret major life choices including their profession, university choice and employee. In their earlier lives, they regretted not taking more chances on their dream job, or taking more risks. In Australia, a separate survey found we regret not taking care of ourselves and having broken relationships.
According to Brené’s research, what people commonly regret the most is “failure of kindness and courage” in certain situations, which is why she believes regrets are important, to encourage us to act differently when given another chance in the future.
Living with regrets? Here are the surprising benefits:
They stay as long as they’re needed
Regret tends to fade quickly, unless it’s relevant to ongoing goals. This is according to Amy Summerville, associate professor of psychology and founder of the Miami University Regret Lab (yes, there is such a thing). In situations that have no option, like spending money on necessary car repairs, it’s common to feel disappointment and dissatisfaction, but not regret, she says. We do feel regret when we still have a chance to do-over, according to her research.
They spur us into action
“In general, it seems that actions (the things we wish we hadn’t done) are most regrettable in the short run,” says Amy. Researchers call it ‘hot regret’ that burns brightly at first, but cools quickly. In contrast, thing that people fail to do (“like not chasing the one who got away”) tend to be remembered for a longer time afterwards and can affect us for months, years or a lifetime. The good news? “After people think about ‘what might have been’ they are more likely to recognise and endorse intentions to improve their future outcomes,” she says.
Regrets signals opportunity
People’s biggest regrets are a reflection of where in life they see their largest opportunities; where they see tangible prospects for change, growth and renewal, according to a study co-authored by Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. Regret is his specialist subject. In a separate study, he found people actually put great worth on regret, admitting that it later helped them to make better future decisions.
They help us embrace imperfection
Finally, take comfort from TED speaker Kathryn Schulz, who in her talk Don’t regret regrets speaks in praise of the universal emotion. “We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them,” she says. Her advice? Realise everyone has regrets, learn to laugh at yourself, and trust the passage of time will heal them.