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Overcoming regrets before they overcome you

by Edward Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Do you have any regrets in life? As we leave a balmy summer and enter autumn, the topic rises to the fore. Seemingly everyone has regrets — and it has probably been this way since recorded history.

The ancient Israelites regretted having fled Egypt as slaves and blamed Moses for their desert malaise. The American revolutionary spy Nathan Hale famously regretted “having but one life to give” for his new nation.

And the most acclaimed business leader of our time — Steven Jobs — regretted in a final interview that he had not been closer to his four children.

Yet, surprisingly, this topic has only recently begun to receive scientific attention. Though Sigmund Freud a century ago uncovered a lot of guilt in his middle-class Viennese patients — and linked it to suppressed sexual thoughts — today psychologists view regret as a different, broader phenomenon.

We can certainly have regrets without feeling guilty about our thoughts or actions. And the emotion of shame seems more clearly distinct: Though many Germans after World War II regretted having enthusiastically supported Hitler, few were wracked with guilt or shame about it.

Despite psychology’s recent focus on regret, evidence is amassing that it may have a big impact on our well-being. Research is converging on the notion that what you regret, how often you do so and with what intensity all make a difference. These findings make intuitive sense if regret is as universal as it seems — for not everyone is fixated on past mistakes or missed opportunities in life, while some people can’t ever seem to let go.

So what specifically has positive psychology discovered?

Let’s take a quick look. First, there’s a big distinction between our regrets over actions versus inactions. It seems that regrets over actions elicit mainly “hot” emotions like anger “(How could I have been so stupid to have bought that car!”).

Regrets over inactions typically elicit feelings of wistfulness (“What if I had moved to London with Kathy that summer instead of staying in Cleveland?”) or despair (“Why didn’t I go to law school when I had the chance? I’ve wasted my life selling life insurance.”)

Research shows too that people experience more regret in the short-term over their actions, but as they age, this attitude reverses. In other words, you’re likely to find lots of folks in their 20s or 30s whose chief regrets are about things they’ve done. In contrast, those in midlife and beyond are likelier to voice regrets on what they didn’t do — and those regrets may be more painful to bear. For two key reasons:

(1) Our natural tendency to fantasize may blow that inaction out of all true proportion: Moving with Kathy to London may have ended in disaster rather than eternal bliss, and law school may have proven unbearably boring.

(2) As we get older, it becomes less and less possible to launch a new career or raise a family. Often the consequences of our inactions only become clear as time passes.

Do men and women experience regret differently?

Not particularly in regard to the facets of frequency and intensity — but yes, in relation to content. Men generally have regrets about their education or work, while women dwell more on relationships they’ve had in life such as those involving family and romance.

What’s absolutely clear is that severe regret is bad for our mental and even physical health. Recently British investigators found that people who compared themselves with successful friends and neighbors had more frequent colds than those who did the same with those whom they considered worse off.

Canadian researchers have linked severe regrets among the elderly to increased sleep difficulties, cortisol imbalance and lessened feelings of happiness.

Can we learn to minimize our regrets and thereby improve our emotional well-being? It would seem so. Experimental research suggests that keeping a journal — especially to write about a painful personal experience — helps us to process the event and let it go.

Perhaps the British writer Katherine Mansfield said it best when she declared: “Regret is such an appalling waste of energy. You can’t build on it. It’s only good for wallowing.”

Though she died from tuberculosis at age 34 shortly after New Year’s Day 90 years ago, Mansfield packed enough fame, fortune, and romance to fill several lifetimes. Her advice seems worth following today.

Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York. E-mail: elhoffma@yu.edu