What does it mean to regret? How do we get over our regrets?
Time is a relentless thief. It seems to steal more and more as you get older. It gives you chances to spread yourself out, but while it does that, it also shrinks your future.
Once upon a time, your future felt like that of a star – seemingly charged to eternally burn. But with your peers aging as you are, you now palpably sense a horizon to your personal time. This is why people in midlife or later have a lot of stories or speculations about their own lives that they tell each other over and over. They have not only experienced more things, but these very experiences can also make for endless regrets – over having done something or not having done something.
I think the capacity for regret is one of the unique gifts/curses of being human. I know that my dog, Gravity, does not seem to have regrets. He and I have a game. First, I get a bacon treat, and after dancing it between my hands, I would then enclose it in one of my hands without him seeing it and present both my closed fists to him so he could choose which one has his treat. When he gets it wrong, which seems to be half the time, he does not kick himself or dwell on the failure to choose the right fist. Instead, he stares at me with a look that seems to say “But I tried, right? Fix it Ma,” and looks at my other hand after successfully figuring it out by elimination.
What do scientific studies say about regret?
Gravity’s reaction is far from the reaction you get from let’s say, a human contestant in any of those game shows where they trade off a box that turns out to contain so much more than the cash they traded it for , or the other way around. The contestant would predictably have an expression of regret – that she should have chosen or not chosen as such. Compounding this regret is if the “better choice” was already suggested by family or friends. That regret will now be a feature of that experience. How long it will stay will depend on many things.
But our lifetimes are a branched series of game shows, with outcomes that lead us to other branching choices. If we were to be coldly logical about it, that potentially gives us as much reasons for regret as much as for gratitude. But we all know we are not balanced creatures. Some dwell on regret more than others and some kinds of regret are more common and deeper than others.
In a 2016 study, researchers found that people dwelt more on the things that they did not do for their “ideal” selves (their own personal dreams and aspirations) than the things that they did not do for their “ought selves” (defined by expectations, duties, and responsibilities.) The explanation that surfaced in the study is that we seem to be able to come up with coping mechanisms when we fail to live up to our “ought selves.”
If you failed to be a good student in high school, you could make up for it by being a good student in college or even grad school, or even justify it by being successful in business even without a good academic record. But if you failed to even try learning to play the guitar when it has been strumming your soul strings ever since, it is not as easy to find a way to rationalize it or to come up with a substitute to satisfy your inner life.
Just recently, Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle announced that they want to step back from their royal duties and work to be financially independent. The “monarchy” is one of the most glaring inventions of human governance that speaks of “duties and expectations,” especially because it is inherited. This makes the members of the royal family surrender to what the monarchy bestows and requires. Why is it so difficult for us to understand that Prince Harry and Meghan, just like majority of couples on the planet, just want to make something out of their own lives? Perhaps it is because their inner lives do not find a home in the castles they were born or married into, and this is one regret they are sure they do not want to have later in their lives?
Their decision seems to be also in line with what science has found be the content of our most intense regrets. It found that people regretted those decisions that violated their own personal rules. It also found that people regretted decisions that involved relationships with other people more than the ones that did not involve relationships. People also regretted decisions more if they did not have a clear justification for it and especially if it involved an action (over inaction).
There is also a very interesting meta study on “anticipated regret,” specifically on decisions related to one’s health. It is that regret which you foresee if you act or not act. It seems that people more likely change their behavior if they foresee that they will regret their inaction more than they would their action. For example, if you predict regretting that you did not get an anti-pneumonia shot, then you will most likely decide to get the shot now. I think this is especially true for cancer therapies, if you could find ways to get them.
But in summary, what advice could we get from science about the impact of regret on the quality of our lives, especially as we age?
To answer the question on how we can age well, science says the Frozen song is the answer: let it go.
In a 2012 study, they looked at certain things happening in our bodies – the brain, skin, and heart – when we experience regret. They looked at these in various age groups, including an older depressed group (mean age of 65.6 years) in an experiment involving a game designed to elicit regret.
For the brain, they found that older people who were depressed and dwelt more on regret had a more active ventrial striatum, which is the brain region known to be active when we experience regret. Also, a brain region associated with emotional regulation, the anterior cingulate, was less active in people who felt regret, but this was a lot more active the greater the missed opportunity. This implied that there is more effort for older depressed people to deal with the missed opportunity.
Skin conductance is a measure of even the slightest change in the level of perspiration on your skin which is, as heart rate is as well, indicative of shifts in one’s of emotions. They found that depressed older people who experienced regret had decreased levels for both, while those who knew how to let go had constant levels of skin conductance and heart rates.
These are tell-tale physiological measures of how much stress one experiences and because these are already known to cause the rate of aging in our cells.
Your scientific defense against the thief that is time seems to be to grab your personal time and fill it yourself. Fill it with the stuff that even brain scanning, skin conductance, and heart rate devices are ill-matched to read. Fill it with adventures, discoveries, friends, warmth, smiles, creations from your imagination and even the failures you have learned from. But keep out regret. It has no antidote. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.