A new study on the psychology of persistent regrets can teach you how to live now

Consider that other self.
Consider that other self.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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Lingering regrets, the kind you hang onto for years, can be great company, returning daily to keep some part of you living an alternate version of your life and career. They’re the stuff of sublime tragic novels and films. They can even be functional if they propel you forward, determined not to make the same mistakes again.

Intuitively, though, we know that left to fester, regrets can control your mood to ill effect and make you miserable.

The solution is not to repress the thoughts or take on some kind of delusional “no regrets” bravado, says Shai Davidai, a psychology professor at The New School and co-author of a recent study on regret. Instead, he argues, we’re better off digging into our oldest woes and becoming acquainted with their nature, and the nature of our response to them.

Davidai’s latest study, conducted with Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich, builds on a body of existing research about the types of regrets that have incredible staying power, namely those about what we could have done, not what we did do wrong. Although we experience both sorts, studies have found that across cultures and demographics, it’s regrets about inactions that haunt more of us for long periods. So you’re more likely to feel achy about never auditioning for that performing-arts school as a teenager, or never joining the Peace Corps, than you are to regret a bad real-estate move or a nightmare job that you took.

Psychologists have theorized as to why this asymmetry exists. In their paper, which was published in the journal Emotion, Davidai and Gilovich note that action-related regrets spur reparative work, which allows us to deal with them and let them go. If you missed your daughter’s graduation, you can apologize and arrange an alternate celebration. If you moved to Chicago for work and regret having left your extended family, you can vow to fly home for every holiday. But there’s usually little to be done about the goals you didn’t act on to begin with. “The one who got away may now be married to someone else; some talents can only be fully developed if one starts young; a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity comes around only once,” the authors write.

We also process these two types of regrets differently. Selling your house at the wrong time becomes a lesson learned, or ultimately reveals a silver lining. When you miss someone’s birthday, Davidai suggests, you might spend some time questioning your motives and your relationship with that individual, because you feel guilty about having messed up. It’s hard to leave that kind of problem unresolved. However, we don’t feel the same pressure to process regrets for the path not taken, largely because the absence of action doesn’t elicit a “hot” emotional response (like anger or guilt) the way making a mistake does.

To this basic taxonomy of regrets, Davidai and Gilovich have added another layer, inspired by self-discrepancy theory, which contends that we have a trinity of selves: the actual, the ideal (your most fulfilled and majestic self), and the “ought” (the one who meets all expectations of one’s social role). So, according to their theory, there are regrets of inaction related to your ideal self, and regrets of actions related to your ought self. And in their six-part study with online volunteers, the psychologists found that it’s the regrets of inaction related to our unrealized ideal selves that cause the most long-term sorrow.

The reason for this is rooted in a basic premise of self-discrepancy theory. Its creator, Columbia University psychology professor E. Tory Higgins, found that becoming aware of gaps between your actual self and your ought self triggers “hot” emotions, similar to those we feel after making a regrettable mistake—we feel guilty or embarrassed, or maybe even disgusted with our behavior. “We think, ‘Oh man I’ve got to do something about this; I have to make amends with someone else or make amends with myself,” says Davidai.

By contrast, he explains, failing to take action that could have made us happier by bringing us closer to an ideal-self related goal leads to shrugs, and feelings of sadness or disappointment—“cool” emotions we believe we can jam into our pockets and deal with later.

“Later never shows up,” however, Davidai says. “[And] what we’re failing to see is in the long run, that reaction, which is very small in the beginning, actually grows and becomes bigger and bigger.”

“It’s a cold emotion. It doesn’t burn from the inside in the same way that guilt and shame does,” he adds,  but “20 years of this cold emotion can become really painful.”

Of the online participants in the study, 70% of people said the slowest-burning regrets were those related to an action not taken that would have brought them closer to a goal for their ideal self, while 30% held onto missteps in the “should have done” department, maybe sensing that they should have held a day job, or that they should have lived closer to family to be a better daughter, son, aunt, or uncle, for instance.

Beyond “hot” and “cold” emotions

There may be other reasons that ideal-self regrets won’t die or fade gracefully with age. Future research, the authors suggest, might examine whether part of the problem is that our lofty goals are also more unattainable, or too abstract to be pinned down and graded. How do you know if you’ve met an expectation for a “happy relationship” when the definition of a happy relationship has always been fuzzy?

Context also matters, they acknowledge. The regrets about what you should have done tend to be attached to situations or environments, which naturally fluctuate. No longer in college, you no longer regret that exam you skipped. However, “because failures to live up to the ideal self are less context-dependent, they may be activated more often” and “become cognitively accessible across various contexts and situations,” the authors write.

In the paper, the authors cite compelling previous research that verifies the power of context. Recoding sample regrets from a previous work conducted in a New York prison, where people are living within the context that foregrounds their regrets daily, they found that incarcerated men reported many more regrets of the “ought self” variety. Their persistent regrets were not always about the crime that put them in prison, says Davidai, but also the way they lived years before, for instance, dropping out of school, getting into drugs, or hanging out with the wrong people.

The subtle art of minimizing your “ideal self” regrets

If most of us are more likely to reach our dying days still haunted by images of an ideal self that never fully materialized, it would appear that we all should go after our dream job, our dream life, right now. Write that screenplay. Open an animal sanctuary. But the authors caution that’s too simplistic a strategy, writing, “A tendency to seize the moment can bring both benefits and misfortune.”

“Now that you know what most people regret, it’s time for you, as an individual, to look inside and say, ‘What type of person am I?’” says Davidai. “Am I the type of person who has big dreams, or believes that dreams are important, and has aspirations but for some reason am not pursuing them? Or am I the kind of person who thinks that the most important thing is the responsibility for other people or my duties as a citizen or a family member?” Maybe you would actually more deeply regret destroying your family’s financial security to start your own business than you would never striking out on your own. Like every other negotiation in life, it’s about choosing the imperfect solution you can live with.

Significantly, this research is also telling us to stop passively pining for those “What ifs,” and instead do what we can to remove their sting. “Let’s say you’re in a job that you don’t necessarily enjoy or you maybe regret having chosen 10 years ago,” Davidai says. “Feeling stuck is fine, but you should treat that like you would treat a hot feeling,” he advises. “If you can’t change your job, or change some of the circumstances of your job, you can do the psychological work, either through therapy or with yourself trying to reframe it.”

When he was a young adult in Israel, Davidai was offered a job at a ski resort in Switzerland, starting the same month that he was supposed to take the entrance exam for university. He couldn’t do both—the resort wanted him immediately or not at all.

He was at one of those junctures where he had to, as he says, “turn right to his ‘should’ or turn left to his ‘could,’” a place we often find ourselves when we’re choosing a college major, and a career path, for instance. With a heavy heart, Davidai made a right and took the exam.

That was well over a decade ago, but the whole time he worked on his research about regrets, questions about that ski-resort job loomed. Not taking it has been a “major” regret that he has thought about every few months of his life, he says.

Rather than wallow in that despair, however, he has chipped away at satisfying the wanderlust that feeds it. He and his wife plan one adventurous trip per year, the only rule being that the destination is someplace they’ve never been. On weekends, too, they check out new neighborhoods in New York, but all the while Davidai focuses on his scholarly work and retains his steady job.

In these large and small ways, he says, you “can shift the scales just a little bit” toward that neglected ideal self, and begin to let go of the regret in its grasp.