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of us, at some point, 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, Ph.D., 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.

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