I regret hitting reply all on that email. I regret drinking too much that one night – you know the one I mean. I regret buying that stupid, overly-priced vacation package. I regret my college major. I regret getting that tattoo – just kidding. I stopped myself just in time. Any of those sound familiar?  

Ah, regret; it’s a pesky beast. Interestingly, there is some cool science behind it. We asked people in our weekly Twitter poll “Do you have something you did not do in your life that you greatly regret missing out on?” 74% of people said yes, they did regret something they didn’t do. Three quarters of us feel the pain of regret and I know it’s brutal, but what about the science? I turned to the research to find out what we can do to make regret less painful.

Thomas Gilovich is the leading researcher on regret and he did a study called “The Experience of Regret: What, When, Why.” Here’s the bad news:e found that although most of us experience regret, it doesn’t fade over time.

He asked people in his study, “When you look back on your experiences in life, what do you regret more, those things that you did but wish you hadn’t or those things that you didn’t do but wish you had?”

54% were regrets of inaction whereas only 12% of people regretted their actions more. The remaining 34% of people said they most regretted decisions that didn’t fit into either category.

This contributes to something called the Zeigarnik Effect: Regrettable failures to act tend to be more memorable and enduring than regrettable actions. When we regret something that we didn’t do, we have unrealized ambitions and unfulfilled intentions and incomplete goals. In other words, we have wishes that we didn’t get to act upon.

So what can you do to prevent regret? Take action! Here are the top three areas where regret tends to creep in later in life:

Behavioral Repair Work

As social beings, some of the most painful regrets we have involve other people:

  • Do you need to apologize to someone?
  • Do you need to have closure?
  • Do you have something to tell someone?

Don’t wait. Call them now. Text them now. Tell someone right now that you love them. Whatever it is–you don’t want risk completely losing contact with someone forever without attempting to make peace with them or share how you truly feel.  

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Live an Experimental Life

A major regret for many people is failing to try things because they were scared or some other obstacle held them back.

  • Have you always been wanting to learn how to do___?
  • Have you always wanted to try___?
  • Have you always wanted to know more about___?

If you thought yes to any of those questions, now is your time. I recommend creating a learning bucket list. This is a list of the skills and things you’ve always wanted to learn or try. Be sure to start yours and check out our article on bucket lists.

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Psychological Repair Work

Gilovich says we’re in need of psychological repair work when we’re processing emotions and past experiences that weigh us down.

  • Do you need to identify a silver-lining?
  • Learn from an experience?
  • Find the something positive in something negative?

Don’t wait. Don’t push it to the corner of your mind. Research shows that not reconciling with our past emotional problems can have lasting effects on how we cope with stresses in the present. Until you deal with your problems, they’ll exaggerate your reactions to similar stressors and prevent you from fully moving forward.

Take a walk, grab a journal, ask a friend to come over and process. Don’t let it emotionally weigh you down.

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What About All Your Current Regrets?

You’ve just committed to living a regret-free life moving forward, but how do you deal with the pain of the regrets you already have? The science shows that one of the best solutions is to just say “Screw it, I did the best that I could and it’s not my fault,” and move on.  

A German study placed a group of depressed, regret-prone people and a group of positive regret-free seniors in scenarios where they inevitably made mistakes that could prompt regret. While the regret-prone group took their mistakes personally, the happy seniors maintained their emotional well-being throughout the experiment by focusing on moving forward rather than dwelling on the problems they faced.

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Regret and Self-Love

Of course, it may not be possible to instantaneously rid yourself of all feelings of responsibility for events you regret. This is where self-compassion comes in. According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most effective strategies for overcoming your regrets is self-compassion.

Take time to reflect on the decisions that you regret and realize that yes, you may have done some awful things that make you want to reverse time, but those actions do not define you and the fact that you regret them proves that you are better than your mistakes. It’s this kind of compassionate attitude that allowed the happy seniors to live regret free; they accepted their mistakes and focused on making better decisions moving forward.

Today is your day to begin living a regret free life. I’d love to hear about your experiences so let me know @vvanedwards.

About Science of People

Our mission is to help you achieve your social and professional goals faster using science backed, practical advice. Our team curates the best communication, relationship and social skills research; turning into actionable and relatable life skills. Science of People was founded by Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma.

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