There’s

S/ - - BEAUTY -

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.

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