Survey: Your Biggest Regrets, and How to Make Them Work for You

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Elke Meitzel / Cultura

Regret is as universal an emotion as love or fear, and it can be nearly as powerful. So, in a new paper, two researchers set about trying to figure out what the typical American regrets most.

In telephone surveys, Neal Roese, a psychologist and professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Mike Morrison, a doctoral candidate in psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked 370 Americans, aged 19 to 103, to talk about their most notable regret. Participants were asked what the regret was, when it happened, whether it was a result of something they did or didn’t do, and whether it was something that could still be fixed. (More on Fan Rage: How Home Team Losses Contribute to Domestic Violence)

The most commonly cited regrets involved romance (18%) — lost loves or unfulfilled relationships. Family regrets came in second (16%), with people still feeling badly about being mean to their siblings in childhood. Other frequently reported regrets involved career (13%), education (12%), money (10%) and parenting (9%).

Roese and Morrison’s study, which is slated to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is significant in that it surveyed a wide swath of the American public, including people of all ages and socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Previous studies on regret have focused largely on college students, who predictably tend to have education-focused regrets, like wishing they had studied harder or chosen a different major. The new survey shows that in the larger population, a person’s “life circumstances — accomplishments, shortcomings, station in life — inject considerable fuel into the fires of regret,” the authors write.

People with less education, for instance, were more likely to report education regrets. People with higher levels of education had the most career regrets. And those with no romantic partner tended to hold regrets regarding love.

Broken down by gender, more women (44%) than men (19%) had regrets about love and family — not surprising, since women “value social relationships more than men,” the authors write. In contrast, men (34%) were more likely than women (27%) to cite work-related regrets, wishing they’d chosen a different career path, for instance, or followed their passion. Many respondents also reported wishing they had worked less to spend more time with their children. (More on Ethics, Shmethics. Teaching Kids Right from Wrong Isn’t Easy)

There was an even split between regrets about inaction (not doing something) and action (doing something you wish you didn’t). But, like previous studies, the current research found that some regrets are more likely than others to persist over time: people tend to hang on longer to the regret of inaction — wishing they’d taken the opportunity to do something or do it differently; meanwhile, regrets of action — wishing you could take back something you did — tend to be more recent. As Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

Further, researchers found, regrets that involved higher stakes, like divorce or death in the family, were stronger than those involving mild loss, such as an argument with a spouse or bad day at work, especially if the regret stemmed from people’s actions, rather than a missed opportunity. (More on Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?)

Interestingly, although the researchers expected to find more regrets springing from problems that could still be fixed rather than those about which nothing can be done (the theory is that when a “regretted decision is reversible, regret is more intense, and serves to motivate the individual toward new corrective behavior,” the researchers write), they found the opposite to be true: “individuals regret lost opportunities the most,” particularly when they’ve failed to achieve a sense of closure following the past event. The authors write:

For example, a doctor who loses a patient on the operating table due to fatigue might always regret the experience and cannot reverse the outcome. Nevertheless, valuable lessons might be gleaned, perhaps lowering the chances of future similar mishaps. In this way, insights obtained from lost opportunities may in time lead to closure.

So the question for the rest of us is, how do we best overcome our own regrets, or at least use them as a positive influence in our lives? Healthland asked Roese to share some of his best advice:

Lesson #1: Move On
It’s hard to avoid regret unless you discard your hopes, dreams and personal standards, or unless you become totally perfect! Regret seems to be an inevitable part of life, and your brain registers it instantly as the discrepancy between what has occurred and what you intended to occur. A good strategy, however, is to recognize that although regret is a common part of life, you don’t need to dwell on it. Turn your attention to new activities, strategies, pursuits. Take a class, join a book club, get out and do something different. Re-orient your attention to future possibilities. (More on An Evolutionary Explanation for Altruism: Girls Find It Sexy)

Lesson #2: Get Closure
Studies have shown that regret disappears faster if it involves a situation that is done, or closed down, or finished. Yet, many times people make decisions in such a way that they leave the door open to changing their mind later — like buying things that you know you can return. If you burn the bridges behind you, and have no chance to go back and change things, it pushes you to come to terms with what you have, accept it and move on.

Lesson #3: Make It Work for You
There are several positive aspects of regret. One is that it can help you put things into context. The more that you see how alternatives might have unfolded, the more you can come to appreciate what has actually happened. Another is that regret can help preserve relationships, in the sense that if you feel deeply that you have screwed up, you are more likely to make amends. Further, regret, along with other negative emotions (disappointment, guilt, shame) tend to motivate us to new action. Regret kicks your thinking processes into a higher gear, so that you more actively seek out new fixes.