A Regret is feeling bad about the past, perhaps blaming yourself for what you did or didn’t do and wishing you had made different choices. It can be a painful emotion, but one that can also be useful. It might be good then to know when we’re more likely to experience it, and what we can do to minimise it or even learn from it.
B Regret requires agency, says psychologist Laurie Santos. This means we can only regret things that we caused – when our actions, or inactions, had an effect on what happened. However, in some situations we have more agency than in others, and how responsible we feel for what happens is a factor that affects how much regret we experience. As Professor Shamram Heshmat explains, if you feel that you had more control over the outcome of something, you’re likely to experience more regret if things turn out bad.
C Another type of situation which can cause more regret is coming close to getting something but not getting it. This is what Heshmat calls the near-miss effect. He gives the examples of how missing a train by five minutes feels worse than missing it by thirty minutes, and how silver medal winners, having come close to getting the gold, tend to be less happy than bronze medal winners. In a study discussed on the Hidden Brain podcast, it was also found that students who scored 89 in a test felt worse than those who scored 87 – 90 was needed to get an A.
D Psychologist Daniel Kahneman argues that you are likely to experience more regret when it’s easy to imagine doing something different to what you actually did. This might help to explain the near-miss effect; for example, silver medal winners might feel worse because it’s easier for them to imagine getting the gold. Another example of this is when you do something that you don’t normally do, and it turns out bad, Kahneman says. In these situations, you are likely to experience more regret as it’s easy to imagine yourself doing the normal thing, most likely with a better outcome.
E It has been said that you will regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do, but is that true? The answer to that seems to be yes, but it depends on the time period, explains psychologist Melanie Greenberg. When we look back over short time periods, we are more likely to regret things we did, but looking back over longer time periods, people have more regrets about things they didn’t do. As psychologist Dan Gilbert puts it, ‘In the long run, people […] seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.’ And this seems to fit with findings about the regrets of older people.
F As summarised in an article in The Guardian, the most common regret of people close to death was wishing they had been truer to themselves and had followed their dreams, rather than doing what other people had expected. The article was based on the findings of a palliative nurse who had asked her patients what they regretted. Other common answers included wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, not expressing their feelings, and not staying in touch with friends. The final regret in the list of five was wishing they had let themselves be happier – as the writer says, it was like people close to the end of their lives realised that they’d actually had some choice in how happy they had been.
G Although thinking about the regrets of older people might be upsetting, it may also be useful as a way to get a better sense of what is important in life and reduce your own future regrets. As philosopher Sam Harris says, a way to minimise regret is to reduce the distance between how you are living and how you will wish you had lived at the end of each day or at the end of your life. Perhaps considering the regrets people have as they near the end of their lives, and how you might avoid them, could help to reduce that gap.
H Experiencing regret ourselves can benefit us, however. It teaches us something, explains author Daniel Pink, and we can use it to be clearer about what is important to us and to make changes to be closer to who we want to be. On the Happiness Lab podcast, Pink and Santos share some ideas about how you might manage and benefit from the regrets you have. If you feel bad about something you did, think about the consequences it had and, if necessary, apologise. If there is something you regret not doing, do it before it’s too late. If it’s already too late to make changes, be kinder to yourself – forgive yourself and perhaps accept that it was the best you could do at that time.
I If the thought of future regrets does worry you, it’s also worth knowing that they might not be as bad as you expect. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman refers to Gilbert’s claim that we often anticipate more regret than we actually experience – future regrets will likely ‘hurt you less than you now think’, he says. This fits with Gilbert’s theory that we each have a psychological immune system that, over time, helps us to feel better about the things we did and the choices we made.
IELTS Reading Questions for Regret:
Matching Headings and Summary Completion.
Sources and links from Regret
– Lori Santos’ Happiness Lab podcast episode about regret with Daniel Pink.
– Article by Shamram Heshmat about common regrets in Psychology Today.
– Hidden Brain podcast episode about regret.
– Daniel Kahmenan’s book Thinking Fast and Slow on Goodreads.
– Article by Melanie Greenberg in Psychology Today.
– Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness on Goodreads.
– Guardian article The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.
– Sam Harris talking about regret on YouTube and on his podcast.
– Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash (cropped).