The Science of Regret (and What it All Means)

Standing six foot seven inches tall, John Heckbert is easily spotted in a crowd, but it’s likely you’ll hear him first. His booming, musical laugh is a quirk he has tried and failed to tame, evidence of a wild streak that enlivens an otherwise dignified bearing.

I first met John at the University of Waterloo, and our friendship blossomed quickly, strengthened by a shared belief that an undergraduate degree is best treated like a sojourn in a 19th-century literary salon. Our flared jeans betrayed us, but our penchant for debates and debauchery gave us a spiritual place in the company of Hemingway, Stein, and their ilk. Or so we thought. When you’re 21 and a smartass, the possibilities are limitless.

When I moved to Korea after graduating, John and I kept in touch; the first time I flew home he met me at the airport. But the second time I visited, he barely acknowledged me at all. Something had darkened our friendship, and I didn’t know what. Over the years I tried to reestablish contact by email, then Facebook, but John didn’t respond. I never stopped wondering what I could have done to maintain our friendship, and its loss was a regret I carried for years.  

Most of us, at some time, will wonder what our lives would be like had we made different decisions—majored in journalism instead of anthropology, moved to Toronto instead of Seoul. Psychologists call these “alternative histories,” and the imagined futures they generate, “counterfactual thoughts.”

Typically we apply counterfactual thinking when things go wrong. The classic example is a car crash; its participants left wondering if it could have been avoided if only they’d left earlier, paid more attention, or stopped texting.

But fixating on these “if only” scenarios is psychologically risky. “I love the term ‘rumination’ because it literally comes from bovine digestion; the idea that you’re vomiting thoughts back up, chewing them over, swallowing them down, and doing this over and over,” says Dr. Amy Summerville, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University, and a specialist in regret. “It’s such a gross metaphor, but useful in the sense that you’re not chewing something new and getting meaning from it; rather it’s this unproductive rehashing of where you’ve already been.”

Studies show that ruminating over one’s regrets is a risk factor for depression, and can cloud decision-making, but that doesn’t mean regrets are all bad. Of all the negative emotions, regret seems to be the most useful.  

Dr. Neal Roese is a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and a leader in the field of regret studies. “I think regret is an emotional signal that tells us when there’s a problem with our decision and that there’s something we can do to fix it,” he says. “So if we listen to our regrets, we can think more, consider alternative options, and arrive at a better state of affairs.”

After more than a decade apart, John and I met again this summer at a friend’s wedding. I fretted for weeks before the ceremony, wondering how it would go, but John greeted me warmly, and as dear friends do, we dropped right back into old patterns. There were differences, for sure: instead of debating literature, we dissected Thomas the Tank Engine, a favourite with each of our toddler sons. But we were talking. We were talking. And it was wonderful. I was curious about those missing years, but feared addressing them would disrupt our tenuous new start. Thankfully John didn’t:

“Things ended on a sour note with us, Devon, and I just want you to know that it was never you, it was me,” he said. I’m not sure a single sentence has ever brought so much relief.

John filled me in on the terrible year he’d had while I was in Korea, and on the cloud his troubles had cast over all his relationships. Then he told me a story, half-remembered, about a time he’d let me down, and how he’d been waiting to meet in person to apologize. His silence over the years had not been punishment for my actions, but penance for his.

From my perspective, John’s regret—over a lapse I barely remembered—had caused us both unnecessary suffering, but the fact he’d held on to it all these years made me wonder: what if my regrets have been holding me back, too? 

When I got home, I listed my regrets and ranked them: from the emails I hadn’t returned, to the friends I’d disappointed, to—and this was the worst—the death I’d never acknowledged. Without exception, my biggest regrets are things I didn’t do, rather than things I did.

According to a seminal study led by Neal Roese, Ph. D., and Mike Morrison, Ph. D., currently a professor at the University of Western Ontario, Americans’ strongest regrets are split almost equally between actions—things they did and wish they hadn’t—and inactions— things they didn’t do, and wish they had. (There’s nothing in the cross-cultural literature to suggest Canadian regrets are any different.) Although we regret actions and inactions nearly equally, the study shows that regrets of the latter type are more likely to fester.

There’s a different storyline involving future opportunity,” Dr. Roese explains. “You can have a regret about something you did, like you told an embarrassing joke at a party and you wish you could take it back. Or you’re at the same party and there’s something you wish you had said, something smart or profound. These are almost two sides of the same coin, except that when you think about something you could’ve done but didn’t, it’s much more open to the imagination—it’s almost limitless. So that’s a reason why regrets of inaction seem to feel more potent, even over a long time.”

Dr. Summerville agrees, describing what she calls “the opportunity principle of regret,” which is the idea that regrets persist for as long as they are useful and can be remedied. If human emotions had publicists, the opportunity principle of regret would surely be the catalyst for a re-branding campaign, and in that spirit, I decide to frame my regrets as opportunities—terrifying opportunities for personal growth.

Before confronting my regrets, I ask the experts for advice. Dr. Summerville suggests I be sincere; studies from her lab at Miami University indicate that from the receiver’s perspective, an insincere apology is worse than none at all. Dr. Roese reminds me of the remarkable human capacity to overcome bad feelings once we’ve experienced closure. The faster it’s resolved the less you have to think about it, he says. “Rip the Band-Aid off as quickly as possible.”

Christmas Day, 2003, Korea. An email arrives, sent from my friend Conor’s account. Subject line: Sad news. Conor and I have been corresponding while he’s in hospital recovering from brain cancer surgery and as soon as I see that subject line, I know he’s gone. The message comes from an aunt who had access to his account in case of the worst. I tell myself I’ll answer her tonight. I spend an hour crying, then join my workmates for Christmas, trying to contain my misery. I don’t reply that night, or the next, or the next. Eventually, so much time passes that it seems too late, and I never tell Conor’s family, whom I’ve never met, what he meant to me.

When I rank my regrets, this is the most serious; heeding Dr. Roese’s advice, I address it first. I write to Conor’s parents, sharing my memories of him and apologizing for the long delay.

Privately, I try to understand my past inaction, linking my experience with Conor’s death to other times my post-mortem behaviour has disappointed. I never want to lose a loved one again, but I will, and reflecting helps me realize that my reaction to death is a tendency I need to work on.

Once my letter is sent, I arrange coffee dates, place phone calls and write emails; tackling the transgressions that still feel raw, and addressing my most persistent regrets, large and small.

To my relief, I discover that most have been forgiven, forgotten, or understood. Like John before me, I’ve been hoarding troubling feelings that my so-called victims have long released.

December 5, 2015, Toronto. A letter, a kind and forgiving letter, arrives from Conor’s mom. She closes it by paraphrasing a poem from Thich Nhat Hanh:

No coming

No going

No after

No before

I hold you close

I release you to be free

I am with you

You are with me

There’s only one sure-fire way to avoid regret in this life, as simple as it is unsavoury: get a frontal lobotomy. But for everyone who possesses an orbitofrontal cortex, regret is an inevitable function of our cognitive programming, and the second-most frequently expressed emotion after love. What we regret reflects the circumstances of our lives, our reactions to those circumstances, and our core values. “Our biggest regrets mirror the things we find most valuable in our lives,” says Dr. Roese, “and that means love and work.”

Of course, a good life requires positive experiences of love (which encompasses romance, friendship, and family) and work (which also includes education). But as much as we desire happy endings, evidence suggests they don’t inspire much soul-searching, while regrets do. Simply put: we learn from our mistakes. “It’s one of those things where people say, ‘You study regret, wow that seems like such a depressing line of work,’” admits Dr. Summerville. “But really it’s taught me how resilient people can be. People have such a range of sad stories, yet they’re able to extract deeper meanings from these negative experiences, and I think that’s inspiring.” Adding that, “It’s actually a tremendously hopeful field in a lot of ways.”

The literature holds more good news about regret, too: as we age, we experience it less. It’s tempting to credit this effect to wisdom, but it’s just as likely the imminence of death creates fewer opportunities, and therefore fewer opportunities lost.

Thankfully, this idea doesn’t tell the whole story. “There are people who are filled with tragic feelings that last a lifetime,” says Dr. Roese, “but they’re rare. On average, people get happier as they get older and that correlates with a focus on the big picture, and less on the nitpicky details. Where this comes from is not clear, but it is a hopeful thought for many of us, that we can look forward to a more satisfied state of old age.”

And young or old, sharing our regrets with another person connects us with them. “Relative to some other common emotions, regret seems to be selectively expressed when we want to feel close to other people,” says Dr. Summerville. Researchers are still analyzing the flipside of that conversation, and what meaning this might have for those on the receiving end of this disclosed regret.

As for John and I, sharing was paramount; by addressing his regrets from our past, he helped resolve mine. Our friendship will never be what it once was, but that’s as much a consequence of circumstance as anything else—we live in different cities, and are both busy with work and young families. But now, instead of wondering what if, I remember our youthful adventures with the nostalgia they deserve. More importantly, I look forward to the next chapter, as John and I navigate the complexities of a grownup and enduring friendship, this time with no regrets.