How Regret Can Make Us Happier

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Do you have any regrets? I sure do.

We feel regret when we feel sad, disappointed, or repentant about something we did or didn’t do in the past.

Regret is a painful emotion, but because it is painful, it can spur us to identify opportunities for greater happiness.

For instance, in college I didn’t pursue any extracurricular activities, and by senior year, I regretted it. This regret was painful, but it meant that when I got to law school, I pushed myself hard to get involved in activities—which ended up making me very happy.

Often, we feel the most intense regret when there’s still time to change, so by admitting to feelings of regret, we may find opportunities for growth.

Regret can make us happier by helping us make better decisions:

  • by reflecting on past regret, we can learn how to do better moving forward
  • by anticipating future regret, we can make better choices in the present

We can learn from our own regrets, and also others’ regrets. For instance, someone told me, “I regret not having more professional photos taken of my family when my children were young,” and once my daughters were born, I’ve made sure to get professional photos taken regularly.

In the Very Special Episode 440 of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, my sister Elizabeth and I shared some of our own regrets, and we asked listeners about their regrets. It was absolutely fascinating to see the range of actions and inactions that people discussed.

Also, we heard from some listeners who didn’t like to use the term “regret.” They preferred to think of the subjects as “lessons learned” or “things I learned the hard way.”

Some themes that emerged:

  • Regret over missed opportunities: Not pursuing relationships, not taking a job, not finishing college, not stepping out of their comfort zone.
  • Regret over not expressing feelings or communicating effectively: Not talking to loved ones before they died, not addressing mental health issues sooner.
  • Regret over parenting decisions: Not spending enough time with their children, feeling too influenced by their spouse in bringing up their child.
  • Regret over trusting or caring about the wrong opinions.

In his thought-provoking book,
The Power of Regret, Dan Pink points out that regret falls into two categories:

  • Regrets of action (losing your temper)
  • Regrets of inaction (didn’t work harder in college)

He explains that we tend to have more regrets related to inaction.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite traditional proverbs: “It is more painful to do nothing, than to do something.”

Reflecting on past regret:

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently? On the podcast, Elizabeth talked about how she wished she’d volunteered for more school committees when her son was in grade school. This regret reflects her desire to be very involved in their school community—a realization that could shape her actions in the future.

Is there silver lining? You regret something, but it also made a positive difference in your life. “I regret my bad marriage, but I have my children.”

What important lessons have you learned from a challenging situation? A friend regretted taking a job where she had to do a lot of pointless, time-wasting tasks, but, she told me, “I learned a lot about what makes a workplace productive or not.”

Anticipating future regret:

What’s the best possible outcome? The worst?

Do you feel like other people or processes are moving events forward, and you’re just passively carried along? Regret may come from not mindfully making a choice—and not choosing is a choice.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t yet? For instance, you want to live in a different city or switch careers. At a certain point, often, change becomes harder. To put it another way…

Imagine yourself five years from now, looking back on this time.  What will your future-self wish you’d done now?

What do you lie about? When we lie about or hide something, we often reveal the way in which our life doesn’t reflect our values. 

Is your life “on hold” in any aspect? Until you finish your thesis, get married, get a promotion? If so, ask yourself whether you really need to wait, or whether you can move forward now.

What action will help you to “Choose the bigger life?

Tools to help you understand and avoid regret

We can use tools for self-reflection to help us recognize patterns, organize our thoughts, and get perspective. Depending on what approach you prefer to take, consider:

While we may want to avoid the sharp, poignant pain of regret, acknowledging this emotion can help us to make our lives happier. What lessons have you learned the hard way, and how will those lessons influence your future behavior? I’d be fascinated to hear your experiences.



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