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?” Seventy-four percent of the respondents said, “Yes,” they did regret something they didn’t do. Three-quarters of us feel the pain of regret. 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. He conducted a study called “The Experience of Regret: What, When, Why.” Here’s the bad news: He 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?”

Fifty-four percent of the respondents said they regretted inaction, whereas only twelve percent regretted taking action. The remaining thirty-four percent of respondents 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:

#1 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.  

#2 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.

#3 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?
  • Do you need to learn from an experience?
  • Do you need to 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 leading an emotionally healthy life.

Take a walk, grab a journal, ask a friend to come over and process. Don’t let it (whatever “it” is) emotionally weigh you down.

What About All Your Current Regrets?

You’ve just committed to living a regret-free life, but how do you deal with the pain of the regrets you already have? The science shows that one of the best solutions is just to 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.

Regret and Self-Love

Of course, it may not be possible to rid yourself instantaneously 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 in the future.

Today is your day to begin living a regret free life. 


About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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