“I have a lot of regrets, but I’m not going to think of them as regrets,” once remarked Debbie Harry. We seem to live in a strongly self-affirming culture that balks at regret. “No regrets! Woohoo,” is the motto of many, yet, most of us have regrets. While I certainly lean toward the idea of classifying regrets as lessons, sometimes it just feels good to actually regret something. When you are able to embrace the regret, you become accountable and the lesson feels all the more credible.
Although we are often encouraged to hop on the no-regrets bandwagon, it looks like a lot of us continue to have our fair share of regrets lurking around. Recently, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed 370 adults in the United States by telephone. They asked participants to recount one memorable regret–to describe what it was, how it happened, and if the regret was the because of something they did or didn’t do.
As reported in The New York Times, the results of the data show that the most common regret involved romance, with nearly one in five respondents telling a story of a missed love connection. The second most common regret involved family issues, with 16 percent of respondents expressing regret about a family squabble or having been unkind to a sibling as a child.
The study, to be published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, showed the other top regrets involved education, career, money issues, parenting mistakes and health regrets.
“People did mention high school romances, the things that got away from them,’’ said Neal J. Roese, a psychologist and professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “Some people said they should have studied something different in college, taken a different career path or followed their passions. Other people said they wished they’d worked less to spend time with children, a parenting regret we heard with some frequency.’’
Making this study unique in comparison to prior ones on regret is that the new study included participants in a broad range of ages (from 19 to 103) and socioeconomic backgrounds. The results showed that any number of specifics (gender, age and education level) influence the types of regrets people feel. An interesting summary finds that there is no consistent pattern for regret: As many respondents expressed regret for something they had done as those who felt regret for something they had not done.
The Times notes that women were far more likely to have romantic regrets, with 44 percent fretting about a lost love, while just 19 percent of men still had relationship regrets. People who were not in a relationship were the most likely to cite a romantic regret. Regrets tended to follow traditional gender roles, with women expressing more regrets about relationships and family issues, whereas men tended to focus on issues involving education, career and money. One in three men had regrets about work and career, compared with one in four women with similar regrets.
Dr. Roese says that regret can be damaging to mental health when a person fixates or ruminates on the missed opportunity. However, regret, although painful, has the potential to refocus attention and improve decision making.
“There are ways regret feels bad, but on average, regret is a helpful emotion,” said Dr. Roese. “The most helpful way to experience regret is to feel it deeply, get over it quickly and move on and use it to push you to new behaviors that are going to be helpful.’’
What’s your biggest regret? Or are you a member of the no-regrets family? Share in the comments. (You won’t regret it.)