“The feeling of regret is there for a reason”
Is regret a completely useless feeling, or can we actually learn from the things we regret we have – or have not – done?
"No, I do not regret anything" the French singer Édith Piaf sings.
Well, that may sound tempting, but is it credible? Is it possible to go through life without even a single regret? And is it wise, or healthy?
According to the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, people mostly regretted not having enough courage to live a life true to themselves, and not the life others expected of them. The book is written by an Australian nurse who worked with people on their deathbeds.
Number two on the list was that they wished they had not worked so hard, and that they had spent more time with their children and partners.
So it may seem that regret and guilt are things that make us less happy. Regretting things can prevent us from moving on in life. Or?
If we are to believe the American researcher and psychologist Robert L. Leahy, feeling regret doesn't have to be a bad thing. It can even be healthy.
Every emotion we experience has a benefit, according to Leahy and other evolutionary psychologists.
Often the emotions are there to make sure we survive and carry our species forward.
Take, for example, fear of heights, fear of the dark, phobia of certain animals, fear of strangers, fear of water, claustrophobia, and so on. These are things that scare us for a reason, and that prevent us from falling from heights, drowning or being bitten by venomous spiders.
Emotions protect us.
The same goes for envy, jealousy, anger – and regret, according to Leahy.
Children change their behaviour when they regret it
Leahy has researched what happens to us when we feel regret. He uses children as an example:
Children who express remorse are more likely to make better decisions and regulate their emotions. They learn from mistakes they make and correct them accordingly, Leahy writes in an article on Psychology Today.
He also uses another example of people with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder causes fluctuations in mood and activity levels to a greater extent than what other people experience.
Leahy explains that those who have bipolar disorder, during manic periods, can say and do things they otherwise would not have said or done. This often makes them regret their behaviour when the manic episode has passed.
For example, they can act impulsively, behave threateningly, abuse drugs and alcohol, and spend money they do not have.
“I have found that bipolar patients who look back on their manic episodes, and who remember all the mistakes they made during this period, are less likely to behave impulsively in the future,” Leahy writes. “And there is a greater chance that they remember to take their medication.”
Norwegian research suggests otherwise
Mons Bendixen is a professor of evolutionary social psychology at NTNU. His research shows that the feeling of regret does not necessarily make us change our behaviour or learn from past mistakes.
“Even if we experience regret, we end up making the same mistakes over and over again. This applies to everything from drinking and eating too much, to starting projects too late and one-night stands,” Bendixen tells sciencenorway.no.
Emotions do not lead to changes in behaviour. Our thoughts, however, do.
Amongst other things, Bendixen has researched people who regret casual sex – or one-nights-stands, and whether regret makes them stop, or if they continue as before.
The study shows that they continue as before regardless of the degree of regret
Understanding ourselves better
Bendixen says that there is not enough research for us to draw the conclusion that regret makes us change our behaviours.
But what his research does show is that the feeling of regret can give us some insight into ourselves, i.e., insight into how we are as people.
“We try to create meaning in what we have done before, and thus we begin to reflect on it,” he says.
Sends social signals
Bendixen says that the feeling of regret is there for a reason. It's just that researchers do not yet fully know what function regret has had throughout human history.
“But it may have had a certain social function,” he suggests.
For example, understanding your own mistakes can send signals that you are a person who reflects on past behaviours and shows a willingness to change.
“Such signals can help you socially and reduce the chance of negative sanctions,” says Bendixen. “But that does not necessarily mean that it leads to a change in behaviour.”
Not everyone feels regret
People experience regret differently. Some feel a lot of regret, while others only very little.
“Some are almost consumed by it,” Bendixen says.
He says that those who regret a lot, often have a more anxious personality type. They score high on the neuroticism personality trait and have a more unstable emotional life.
“Those who do not regret, have a slightly different style,” says Bendixen.
But researchers do not yet know enough about regret and personality to say anything for sure about what separates those who regret from those who don’t.
“People may feel that those who don’t often regret things should actually regret more. But not everyone is able to do so,” Bendixen says.
When regret becomes brooding
Bendixen believes that it may also have been an adaptation in us humans, not to dwell too much on the mistakes we make.
Opting out of thoughts about things you cannot change and that can make it difficult to move on in life can thus be a survival strategy.
“Dwelling on things is clearly linked to depressive thoughts, which maintains these,” says Bendixen. This is not something psychologists recommend people do.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.
Robert L. Leahy “If Only… Finding Freedom from Regret.” The Guilford Press, 2022. ISBN-13: 978-1462547821. Summary.
Kennair et al. The Function of Casual Sex Action and Inaction Regret: A Longitudinal Investigation, Evolutionary Psychology, 2021. Doi.org/10.1177/1474704921998333