We each have our own personal stash of regrets, and when they surface our language trends to the elegantly named counterfactual conditional phrasing: “If only I had married Bob, I would have been happy.” Well, you didn’t marry Bob (instead you married The Jerk), and in any case there’s no guarantee Bob isn’t his own brand of jerk.
The list of potential regrets goes on. “If only I’d gone to the right college….taken that job in Europe…waited to have children” If only, if only…
One of the most useless occupations of our already cluttered minds is the act of regretting, especially when regrets remain stuck in our thoughts like a phonograph needle hung up in the groove of a vinyl record (as I glance at my iPod, I’m aware this is a doomed simile).
Psychologists know that chronic regretful thinking is unhealthy. If you continue riding the escalator down to deep regret, you’ll start feeling depressed, anxious, or both. Simple day-to-day joyful possibility will be tainted by the shadow of melancholy. And in your body, you’re triggering a subtle but persistent fight-or-flight response, predisposing yourself to a variety of symptoms, like headaches, jaw tightening, digestive problems, and an inefficient immune system.
Whether you carry one regret or a knapsack full of them, you need to stop as quickly as possible.
The effects of chronic regretful thinking
Canadian psychologists studied the effects of chronic regretful thinking on people’s lives along with their coping skills. They selected 104 volunteers and asked them to review their regrets and the extent to which these decisions affected their lives. Unsurprisingly, there were no unusual regrets, just the usual “shoulda coulda woulda” fare of education and career choices, relationship choices, time with family, taking better care of themselves (but nobody, as the saying goes, regretted not working more).
Curiously, the age of the subjects made little difference: the attitudes of 20-year-olds were remarkably similar to those of 70-year-olds.
When the psychologists asked about coping skills used in relation to regrets, the answers were interesting. How well you are able to walk away from them seems to depend on how you compare yourself to others. If you’re envious of other people’s lives, your regret will attach itself to you like a sea lamprey. If you’re in a bad job and envy your superficially joyous sister’s position, you will own your regret.
On the other hand, if you think about your unemployed neighbor working through foreclosure on her house, your own situation will feel better by comparison and it’s likely you’ll be able to distance yourself from your regret.
In a nutshell: there’s always someone worse off than you. People who grasp this appear to be better able to cope with regret than those who are more likely to compare “upward” (and yes, just as there are always people worse off than you, there will always be those better off).
French singer Edith Piaf had the right idea altogether, in her defiant “No Regrets” (Non, je ne regrette rien), which I suggest you click here to listen to immediately, joining the 36 million (!) listeners who have already done so. It’s okay if don’t know French and can’t sing along–it makes a great hum-able anthem to inflict on everyone throughout your day. Less stirring and a bit too melancholy for me, Frank Sinatra has the same idea in “My Way” with its opening line, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
But the message is there for everyone. Lives filled with regret are lives unfulfilled.
Once, driving through Mississippi, I came across a small roadside church whose sign read “Church of the Second Chance.” I liked that. It’s what we all need, our personal second chances, every morning of our lives, so we can…
David Edelberg, MD