Can a Negative Emotion Like Regret Actually Help Make You Happier? I Think So.

Assay: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the important role of negative emotions in a happy life.

Some people seem to believe that the purpose of a happiness project would be to achieve a life in which you were 100% happy, 100% of the time. This isn’t realistic, and in any event, even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable.

Negative emotions are a key part of rational thought and effective performance. Also, up to a point, they can be of great service to happiness. They’re loud, flashy signs that something isn’t right. Because they’re so unpleasant, they can sometimes prod us to take action when nothing else can. For instance, envy and deception have helped me to make useful changes in my life.

I just finished Neal Roese’s book, If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of regret. Regret is so very painful! But there have definitely been times in my life when I’ve been able to harness regret to make my life happier.

For instance, when I was in college, I did almost no extra-curricular activities. By the time college was over, I wished that I’d been more involved. I felt I missed some opportunities to do fun things, engage more deeply with other people and the school, etc. That regret was very powerful.

When I got to law school, that regret gave me the fuel I needed to push myself to do more activities, like the law journal and Barristers’ Union. And the law journal, in particular, ended up being a huge engine of happiness for me.

Roese points to studies that asked adults of all ages what, if they could live their life over again, would they do differently? The top four answers, which appeared consistently across many different studies, in the same order, were:

1. Education
2. Career
3. Intimacy
4. Parenting

Roese makes the significant point that people tend to have more regrets when they still have opportunities to act. “When there is still a chance to make a difference,” he writes, “regret persists.”

I’ve begun paying a lot more attention to the flashes of regret I get during the course of my day. Instead of trying to escape from that discomfort, I’m trying to focus on it, to see if I can find clues about myself.

And I often remind myself of the observation from Publilius Syrus: “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” This is so, so, so true.

(Interesting, somewhat random tidbit about regret: Do you remember getting the advice that, when taking a standardized test, you should be very wary of changing your answer? that changed answers were usually incorrect? Wrong! reports Roese. It’s usually better to change an answer than to stay with your first response.)

* I’m a member of LifeRemix, so I’m biased, but I do love visiting the blogs rounded up there.

* Visit my companion site, the Happiness Project Toolbox. It’s a site that helps you organize and track your own happiness project, with eight free tools. Plus you can see what other people are doing, which is fascinating.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Liane

    Turning regret into action is the crux of the matter. Absolutely essential to act on it, otherwise it can turn into something more sinister and unhealthy.

    On the Syrus quote – that’s true for certain personality types! However, on behalf of more introspective people, I can say that I’ve often regretted my silence when I’m not confident enough to speak up about something. It’s a tough balance to find!

    • Katie

      I think you’re spot on about the personality types – I personally regret saying many more hurtful things than I regret not speaking up, but there have been a few instances when I should have spoken up, or at least listened to and acted in accordance with my gut feeling about something. 

    • Diane

      I can empathize with your feelings.  Just go for it…when you have something to say.  None of us is perfect; we all need to be pardoned upon many occasion.  It’s okay if you mess up.  Demonstrating you imperfection, a part of our human condition, is much more gratifying to all of us than paralysis.  Go for it!

  • The other day I was all tangled up in knots about some feelings I have about the old girlfriend of my late husband. The feelings were: jealousy and pettiness. After I talked to a friend on the phone, I identifed these negative emotions aloud. Identifying them while talking to an understanding friend helped me to get over the feelings very quickly. I was impressed with myself! And it made me realize, also, the power of simply identifying negative emotions and accepting them with compassion, as a way to move beyond them.

  • rachel

    Last year I heard a very interesting presentation on the potential value of negative emotions by Macalester Bell:

  • I heard that actually, the changed answer thing varies by gender.  Women should stick with their first answer, as they’re more apt to second-guess themselves wrongly.

  • @elizabethcraft

    Hmm.  I USUALLY regret what I’ve said as opposed to what I haven’t said.  But there are definitely times I’ve felt ashamed for not speaking up when I’ve seen someone being treated really badly.  

    But YES totally agree that identifying negative feelings can help spur one to positive action!

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a great point. I was thinking of times when I said something mean,
      indulged in gossip, etc. But there are many times when the right thing to do
      is to speak up. Then the silence is what I regret.

    • diane

      Speaking up when someone is being treated badly is really powerful; you don’t have to say much, but what you say has tremendous power.  The person who you’re defending is truly blessed, and you end up earning a huge amount of respect.  It speaks character loudly!!  Go for it!

  •  Thanks once again Gretchen!
    You always are on the edge of thinking outside the box and very


  • Val

    I  have this regret–

    Though I was a very solid swimmer, I never went out for the swim team.  My experience with team sports was in things like softball, where my poor performance could affect an entire group.

    Swimming/cross country/track are different from this, scored differently.

    I could have participated without dragging down the group–low scores  aren’t even counted, and possibly had ability to offer.

    But because of my experience with team sports, and nobody who explained the scoring system to me, I didn’t even try.

    Stupid.   Sigh.  love, Val

  • Nextstarfish

    Very interesting post. I think the relentless focussing on the value of positive thinking and dissmissal of negative emotions by some elements of the ‘happiness industry’ isn’t entirely healthy.

    The negative stuff is there for a reason – if we feel scared or apprehensive about something, perhaps we should think about it more carefully. If we feel unenthusiastic or bored by something, perhaps we should be doing something else instead. 

    Guilt and regret are important socially, they help us set boundaries for our behaviour and ‘nudge’ us not to do ‘bad things’ again. I think it is important to know how to process these emotions constructively, but when people say they ‘just don’t do guilt’ – do they mean they have quickly actively learn the lessons and modify their future behaviour, or just that they don’t care that much ?

  • becky gadeikis

    I’m one of those people that have often regretted my silence, not my speech.  In holding back out of fear, I made the biggest mistakes and got myself into the worst situations.  Coming from that experience, I learn the most from saying too much now, and push myself to speak up often.  If I say too much.. well, at least I said something 🙂

  • Christinedarlene

    It’s a good article. I would only disagree with
    only  one thing.  Your strong agreement of  “I have often
    regretted my speech, never my silence.” As for myself, I have often
    regretted my silence, rarely my speech.

  • Gretchen, these assays are my favorite of  your posts. There’s always something in them that leaves me thinking for awhile.

  • Great post, Gretchen. It really got me thinking.

    When speaking with older people who are at the end of their
    lives, they generally don’t regret the things they’ve done. They find a way to
    forgive themselves for any perceived wrong doings (like, “I wasn’t a good
    enough parent”, etc.) But what they truly regret are the missed
    opportunities. The girl or guy they didn’t marry, the business they didn’t
    start, the adventure they didn’t have. Sure, we can feel badly about anything
    in our past if we choose to, but I think our biggest regrets are the ones where
    we didn’t allow ourselves to be authentic, to be who we really are, out of

    I totally agree that our negative emotions serve a purpose. The
    goal is not to be a mindless, artificially happy drone. It’s to enjoy and
    experience life, with all its highs and lows.



    I found this article refreshing because I think it goes to show that a full life will have a full range of emotional experiences, postive and negative. 

    A regret can be a big motivator, an important form of learned motivation, and there are probably many other negative emotions that also act as learned motivators as the article suggests.  

    I also have to add that I have more silences to regret than things I’ve said.  I guess if you tend to be quiet or cautious you are more likely to have silences to regret, while the more outgoing and talkative people will be more likely to have things they said to regret.

    Bart Schuster

  • Rainmaid

    Never regretted silence? oh my, oh my oh my….think of all the people who didn’t speak up when atrocities occurred, who didn’t protest when injustice dominated, who didn’t care enough to ask “May I help?” I strongly disagree with the idea that a person should never regret silence. Just think of all the great people in history who were made so by their REFUSAL to be silent! My goodness. I disagree with the comment from Syrus. I disagree and am not being silent about it….

    • Tre

      I totally agree. There is a time and way to speak up and out! Cannot remember the author of this quote “Evil persists when good men do nothing.” It has resonated with me for years. It’s all in the balnce between our minds, hearts, motivations and mouth.

  • Diane Robinson

    I agree that it’s important to look regrets square in the face, to analyze them, and to allow them to guide us to a better personal record of behavior.  It is also valuable. however,  to look at things that went well in your day, analyze them, and build on them.  People who do both are forgiving of themselves and are in  more of a constant state of happiness because they are celebrating as well as looking forward to growth.  In other words, it becomes a life style that is determined to rejoice come what may.   Favorite scriptures that encourage me entail the following: If we confess our sins (failures), He is faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Let us come boldly before the cross to obtain grace and mercy.   I think we all need a higher power to empower us to live freely in a growing mode.

  • Aatash

    Hi Gretchen, if I may ask, what is it about education that most people regret, putting it at the top of that list?

    In terms of the general point about regret – I totally agree. Even on a small scale: if after talking to a friend I regret not being as warm or friendly as I should have, that regret will cause me to be more friendly to that person the next time I see them. Small things like that – I always find myself using a feeling of regret as kind of a guide for my future actions, including the small ones.