Regrets over things we did — and didn’t do — in the past can keep us from moving forward and living our best, most joy-filled lives. Here, experts reveal how reframing this difficult emotion can be a force for reinvention, with the power to tame anxiety, end guilt, and boost joy.
When your niece calls to tell you about a dream trip she took, you’re excited for her, but at the same time, you kick yourself: I wish I’d traveled more when I was younger. While it’s natural for regret to trigger hurt, new research shows it can actually be an inspiring catalyst for change and an antidote to stress, inspiring us to live in the moment. “Regret is the most common negative emotion and second most common emotion of any kind — negative or positive — preceded only by love,” reveals Daniel H. Pink, author of The Power of Regret (Buy from Amazon, $18), who culled the regrets of more than 16,000 people for his new World Regret Survey (you can take it here). “And while ruminating keeps us stuck in the past, facing regret head-on helps us make better decisions and is shown to give us a greater sense of meaning.”
Indeed, regret has so much potential to help us find happiness because of its complexity as a cognitive emotion, reveals Neal Roese, Ph.D., author of If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity (Buy from Amazon, $7). “There’s a complicated thought process packed into it, as the brain visualizes paths we might have taken,” he says. “If we can learn to listen to it without self-blame, we can extract valuable lessons that will help us let go of fear and move on stronger.”
Read on for simple, surprising ways to transform backwardlooking regrets into forward-looking momentum so you can reap the joy of the present moment and the promise of a blissful future.
To heal a rift in a relationship, share your story.
Another year has passed without talking to your sister with whom you’ve drifted apart after an argument. She doesn’t want to hear from me, you convince yourself. Such “connection regrets” are the most common type of regret, reveals Pink. Yet they make us feel as if we’re the only one in the world struggling with them.
If regret over a rift has you feeling stuck and uncertain, tell yourself the person wants to hear from you. “The biggest reason we don’t try to reconnect is because we think we’ll be rejected,” says Pink. “But studies show when we reach out, it is well-received much more often than not.” He advises first sharing your story with someone you trust, or just admitting it to yourself. “Self-disclosure — even if it’s privately to ourselves in a journal — relieves regret, making it easier to reconnect.” In fact, journaling for 15 minutes over three consecutive days is proven to help us turn a new page by assuaging guilt and letting us look ahead with hope.
To stop regret over a decision, swap ‘if only’ for ‘at least.’
You’re still smarting from the hit your bottom line took after you went way over your holiday shopping budget. If only I hadn’t spent so much, you beat yourself up. Those two words, “if only,” are a common catalyst for rumination — the overthinking that keeps us in an endless regret spiral.
Shifting from “if only” to “at least” is proven to boost resilience. In his research, Pink found that folks who were able to find silver linings were much better at bouncing back. “For example, women who regretted marrying their ex would say, ‘At least I have two great kids from this relationship,’ or if they regretted spending too much: ‘At least I still have X in savings.’” This simple phrase primes your brain to uncover genuine blessings. “‘At-leasting’ takes you in the opposite direction of regret, to a place of possibility, so instead of dwelling on problems, you can solve them.”
To overcome regrets about missing out, look at the big picture.
When a co-worker reveals she’s making a career change to chase her goal of becoming a teacher, you sigh, Why didn’t I go after my dream? “There’s a big difference between action regrets and inaction regrets,” says Pink. “While the former elicits ‘hot’ emotions, like anger at oneself, inaction stirs smoldering, long-term regret.”
Rather than fixate on paths not taken, look where you want to go now. That journey starts with self-compassion and realizing you’re not alone, says Pink. The proof: 70 percent of folks in one survey said inaction regrets were the hardest. And that feeling only grows as we grow older. “In our twenties, we have the same amount of action and inaction regrets, but as we age, we grieve what we didn’t do far more.” Ask yourself, Five years from now, what will I want to have done? Or, put another way: “Be an oceanographer, not a scuba diver, and zoom out to see the big picture.” This turns regret into action that you’ll one day look back on with pride.
To quiet a nagging voice in your head, create a ‘reverse résumé.’
Sometimes a voice in the back of your head tells you if you’d just done something differently in your life, you’d be happier. But what? “There are two types of regret: acute and chronic,” explains Roese. “While the former is short-term and clearly defined, the latter creates a deeper yet vague lack of fulfillment.” In other words, we know it’s there, but not where it’s coming from.
When regret is hard to define, gain clarity with a “reverse résumé,” says Pink. “It’s a list of your challenges and setbacks. Seeing them on paper helps you discover patterns and extract lessons.” When Pink wrote his “résumé,” he realized most of his regrets stemmed from the same thing: Taking on too many projects his heart wasn’t in led to unhappiness. “The lesson for me was that unless I’m fully committed, it’s better not to do it at all.” Whatever you discover, discerning patterns will help you coursecorrect and live life on your terms.
“The best metaphor for regret is if you have a bucket of rocks, go collect a few seashells — simply looking for hope is enough to help you see life in a new light,” adds Roese. In the end, there’s no such thing as a life without regret, and that’s a good thing.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.