Establishing a life with no regrets is not a realistic goal. Although it is often sad to make sentences full of wish and “maybe”, it can carry clues that will lead you to a happy life…
The feeling of regret is a feeling that people don’t want to experience and they are right about it, but like any emotion, regret basically serves you. Instead of ignoring this feeling, if you think about where you went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening, maybe you won’t change your past, but you can avoid some future regrets.
Shai Davidai, professor of psychology and co-author of a recent study on regret, says the solution isn’t to suppress thoughts or repeat some sort of delusional “no regrets” motto. Instead, he argues, it’s better to dig up the oldest troubles, to recognize their nature and the nature of the response.
Why do we regret?
Psychology studies different theories about why we feel regret. Some scientists think that action-related regrets encourage reparative work that allows us to deal with them and release them. If you missed your friend’s birthday, you can apologize and arrange an alternative celebration. If you’ve moved to another city for work and regret leaving your family, you may intend to fly home for every vacation, but there’s nothing you can change about not taking action in the beginning. Your first love may be with someone else, some skills can only be fully developed if they start at a young age, they don’t repeat a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity and you can’t do anything about it.
Are all regrets the same?
Studies on regret also prove that many people experience similar feelings. Too often, people regret things they didn’t do, not just because they made the wrong career move or a less lucrative decision. The real suffering comes from not attending that theater course or not telling the loved one about it.
We process these two different types of regret, which we did and did not do, in two different ways. Selling your home at the wrong time is something you can learn from and may make you more cautious going forward. When you miss someone’s birthday, you feel guilty about it and may spend some time questioning your relationship with that person, in which cases regret can be a guide. However, you may not feel the same pressure to commit regrets for the path not taken, largely because the absence of an action, i.e., regretting something not done, does not elicit a “hot” emotional response (such as anger or guilt) of making a mistake.
Betraying the person you want to be
Inspired by the self-inconsistency theory, psychologists may approach this basic classification of regrets from a perspective that assumes we have three selves: real, ideal (your most fulfilling and glorious self), and should be. So according to their theory, there are regrets of inaction about your ideal self and regrets of actions about your supposed self, and it’s regrets of inaction about our unrealized ideal selves that cause the most long-term sadness. The reason for this lies at the core of the self-inconsistency theory. Recognizing the gaps between your true self and your intended self triggers “hot” feelings similar to those we feel after making a regrettable mistake. We feel guilt or shame, or we are disgusted by our behavior.
Conversely, not taking an action that could make us happier by bringing us closer to an ideal personal goal is easier to skip as it does not point to a concrete event that might be the subject of regret, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. While not experiencing these warm feelings makes it difficult to process this regret, in the long run it can turn into bigger problems and an ongoing vicious cycle.
Beyond “hot” and “cold” feelings
There may be other reasons why ideal self-regrets don’t go away with age. When the definition of a happy relationship is always vague, how can you tell if you’re meeting the expectation of a “happy relationship”? Regrets about what you should have done tend to be tied to naturally fluctuating situations or environments. Being no longer in college makes it unreasonable to worry about failing an exam. However, failures to reach the ideal self may occur more frequently because they are less context dependent. If there is a passion that you do not pursue, this situation may continue in the future in the same way.
Easy to say and not so easy to do, the way to avoid these long-term regrets is to know yourself and live accordingly. Trying and failing will be much easier to deal with than the regret of not trying. What kind of person am I? Am I someone who has big dreams or believes dreams are important and has aspirations but somehow doesn’t go after them? Or am I the type of person who thinks that the most important thing is responsibility to other people or my duties as a citizen or family member? Finding answers to these questions may not be a complete solution either, because life is not a fairy tale and something can go wrong. Perhaps you regret even more that you destroyed your family’s financial security to start your own business. Like any other decision in life, it’s about choosing the flawed solution you can live with.
Living completely in a fantasy world will not save you from regrets. What if you followed your passion for music instead of preparing for university exams as you thought you should have done on time? It’s pointless to waste time with these questions unless you have a time machine. The best thing you can do right now is to satisfy your passion for music in different ways and try to be happy by changing the current circumstances of your life or your perspective. If circumstances are not flexible enough to change, self-help methods such as psychotherapy can help you get around them and create a happy space for yourself.