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 that 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 Dr. Roese, and Dr. 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.