only one surefire way to avoid regret in this life, as simple as it is unsavoury: get a frontal lobotomy. But for everyone who possesses an orbitofrontal cortex, regret is an inevitable function of our cognitive programming, and the second-most frequently expressed emotion after love. What we regret reflects the circumstances of our lives, our reactions to those circumstances, and our core values. “Our biggest regrets mirror the things we find most valuable in our lives,” says Dr. Roese, “and that means love and work.”
Of course, a good life requires positive experiences of love (which encompasses romance, friendship, and family) and work (which also includes education). But as much as we desire happy endings, evidence suggests they don’t inspire much soul-searching, while regrets do. Simply put: we learn from our mistakes. “It’s one of those things where people say, ‘You study regret; wow, that seems like such a depressing line of work,’” admits Dr. Summerville. “But really it’s taught me how resilient people can be. People have such a range of sad stories, yet they’re able to extract deeper meanings from these negative experiences, and I think that’s inspiring.” Adding that, “It’s actually a tremendously hopeful field in a lot of ways.”
The literature holds more good news about regret, too: as we age, we experience it less. It’s tempting to credit this effect to wisdom, but it’s just as likely that the imminence of death creates fewer opportunities, and therefore, fewer opportunities lost.
Thankfully, this idea doesn’t tell the whole story. “There are people who are filled with tragic feelings that last a lifetime,” says Dr. Roese, “but they’re rare. On average, people get happier as they get older and that correlates with a focus on the big picture, and less on the nitpicky details. Where this comes from is not clear, but it is a hopeful thought for many of us, that we can look forward to a more satisfied state of old age.”
And young or old, sharing our regrets with another person connects us with them. “Relative to some other common emotions, regret seems to be selectively expressed when we want to feel close to other people,” says Dr. Summerville. Researchers are still analyzing the flipside of that conversation, and what meaning this might have for those on the receiving end of this disclosed regret.
As for John and I, sharing was paramount; by addressing his regrets from our past, he helped resolve mine. Our friendship will never be what it once was, but that’s as much a consequence of circumstance as anything else—we live in different cities, and we are both busy with work and young families. But now, instead of wondering “what if,” I remember our youthful adventures with the nostalgia they deserve. More importantly, I look forward to the next chapter, as John and I navigate the complexities of a grown-up and enduring friendship, this time with no regrets.