A musician friend named Rudi Harst wrote a song titled, “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda.” It’s both a catchy tune and a great reminder that feelings of regret can hold us back from living a happy and fulfilled life. But I suspect that one reason why the song makes us laugh and wince at the same time is because we all wish on some level that we could do one or two things differently, that we’d made at least one other choice along the line, or that we’ve neglected to do something we wished we had. Still, what I’ve discovered over the last couple of days is that regret isn’t one of those negative emotions like fear, shame or jealousy that has little or no redeeming value. Instead regret can serve as a signpost for pointing out choices and changes that can help us lead a SMART and happier life—365.
Interestingly enough, regret is a little tricky to define precisely because it isn’t just an emotion. While regret elicits an emotion, it usually comes along with a judgment or appraisal of something—in other words a choice. In countries like the U.S. where we have a great deal of personal freedom in education, work, and relationships, those choices can lead to feelings of regret. In countries where choice and options are limited, far fewer feelings of regret are reported.
More interesting facts about regret comes from Happify.com which claims that 90% of people (in the U.S. at least) admit to a major regret about something in their lives. Regrets can also vary at different ages, and whether you are a man or a woman. For example 44% of women have romantic regrets while only 19% of men share that feeling.
Other facts suggest that regret is most detrimental to seniors and can lead to depression and illness. A big part of that is because many elders believe it is too late to change. Fortunately, younger adults usually feel they have plenty of time to avoid and alter many of their regrets.
Another fascinating tidbit about regret is that it can occur both because of something a person does, or because of something a person didn’t do—in other words, either from our actions or our inactions. According to Thomas Giloviqh and Victoria Husted Medvec from Cornell University, “Actions produce greater regret in the short term; inactions generate more regret in the long run.” Beyond that Giloviqh and Medec report, “The most common regret of action was to “[rush] in too soon.” But, “When people look back on their lives, it is the things they have not done that generate the greatest regret.” In fact, over the long-term, inaction is usually regretted 75% more than regrettable action.
But there is good news. Harvard Healthy Publications explains that regret can be useful no matter what our age when faced directly. The four main benefits of regret are:
- Allows us to make sense of our past experiences;
- Allows us to avoid more or similar mistakes made by others or ourselves;
- Helps us fix our missteps and guide us toward greater fulfillment.
- Helps us improve our relationships with others.
Because we can learn from regrets, it is extremely beneficial to recognize our own blunders and those of others. The book, 30 Life Lessons For Living by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. offers five suggestions that can help us avoid such regrets. Pillemer interviewed 1,200 senior Americans, average age 78, and they offered the following advice:
- Always be honest. Being honest, trustworthy and “fair and square.” According to Pillemer his “experts” unanimously and vehemently agreed that living otherwise leads to certain and eventual regret.
- Say yes to opportunities. Just like where I mentioned above, most regret comes from inaction rather than our actions. As the quote goes, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
- Travel more. You know I loved this one! What’s amazing is that most of the “experts” interviewed in the book admitted that they lived rather small and local lives, yet part of them deeply regretted not experiencing new places, new people, or new ideas. As Pillemer says, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
- Choose a mate with extreme care. It’s likely that the most important “choice” we make in our lives is the person we marry. Unfortunately, according to the “experts” we usually make three big mistakes when it comes to our life partners. 1) We think love and lust are the same thing; 2) we commit out of desperation; 3) we commit without thinking much at all. Any one of the three can lead to regret.
- Say it now. According to Pillemer, “…when it comes to deep, long-lasting regret, the experts pointed instead toward things left unsaid.” Their advice? “If you have something to say to someone, do it before it’s too late.”
Another set of “experts” come from palliative care nurse and author Bonnie Ware in her book, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying. They are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. “Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. “They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. “Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
- I wish I had let myself be happier. “Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”
According to Happify.com a few current regrets are:
- The biggest regret of all is taking a dissatisfying job just for the money;
- 25% of homeowners have buyer’s remorse.
- 29% of adults under 35 believe they have posted something that could harm their career on social media.
- 25% regret sharing selfies.
- 31% regret their tattoos.
Regret doesn’t have to be something we deny or pretend never happens to us. Instead, regret can be a wake-up call where we realize we’ve made a decision (or two) that is leading us away from the peace and happiness we crave. In fact, if we are still alive and able to read this, we can start right now following the expert advice that I’ve shared above. Letting go of our regrets might not be easy, but the SMART thing to do is to allow it to redirect our lives toward greater happiness, purpose and peace.
Your turn: Has regret taught you anything that helps you be happier today? Please share in the comments below.