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.