Edith Piaf may have had no regrets, and Frank Sinatra had too few to mention, but for the rest of us that nagging feeling of coulda/woulda/shoulda is common. In fact, research reveals that regret is second only to love as the most frequently mentioned emotion in everyday conversation. 

To social psychologist Amy Summerville, this isn’t a bad thing. 

Summerville runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where her research team is dedicated to understanding how people think about the choices they wish they’d made.

In more than a decade of taking a deep dive into regret, Summerville has developed a profound respect and affection for the emotion of “what might have been.” 

“One of the things I’ve come to love about regret,” she says, “is that while it’s obviously a negative emotion it’s actually a really hopeful emotion. Regret is about what people can learn from their mistakes and how they can do better, and those are really inspiring questions to study.”

Summerville recently spoke to Considerable about the science of regret.

What are the things people regret the most and does this change over time?  

Generally speaking, the research indicates that, among Americans, the most common area of regret involves social relationships. That includes romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships. 

As people age, regrets around health start to become more common. When people reach their 50s, 60s, and 70s, they start to say things like “I regret I didn’t take better care of myself” or “I regret I didn’t take my health seriously when I was younger.”

You’ve uncovered some surprising findings when it comes to the relationship between regret and opportunity. How might that play out with, say, a missed yoga class vs. a special yoga retreat? 

When we look at how regret either persists or fades, we find that when regret is related to an area in our life where we feel there’s a lot of opportunity to meet our ongoing goals, regret is more likely to endure.

“Regret is about what people can learn from their mistakes and how they can do better.”

Let’s say you missed your yoga class today and fitness is an important goal for you. There are regular classes on the schedule, so when next Monday rolls around and you remember that you felt really terrible about skipping yoga last week, the regret resurfaces, and that may make it more likely you’ll get to class this time.

If, on the other hand, you missed that one-time-only yoga retreat, regret is not going to provide the same benefit since you don’t have the remedy of taking the retreat again. The opportunity’s been lost. In this case, you’ll be more likely to get over it and move on.

You make regret sound so benevolent!

It’s important to separate the question “is regret functional or useful?” from the question “is it painful?”

Putting your hand on a hot stove hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. That pain is a really important signal to us that we’re doing something damaging and we need to make a change.

Regret is similar. The pain of regret is motivational. Take somebody who feels regret about the one that got away. If they feel they still have romantic possibilities open to them, that regret can teach them lessons about how to pursue a romantic relationship and how to be a good partner.

“The pain of regret is motivational.”

Those insights can be helpful in other kinds of close connections. What are the lessons I could learn about how to be a better friend or a better parent? 

All this comes with a big grain of salt, which is that people can have ruminative regrets, thoughts that are repeated, unwanted, and intrusive. You’re sitting at your desk answering emails and suddenly you’re thinking about the one who got away, over and over again, and it’s totally derailing your day. 

That’s unproductive, and it appears to be associated with depression and anxiety. What’s not clear is whether regret is causing people to experience depression and anxiety or if people who are depressed or anxious are more likely to have this disordered pattern of thinking.

If you’re experiencing regret that feels like it’s coming out of nowhere and it’s persistent and intrusive, you probably should be talking to a mental health professional. 

The concept of counterfactuals—imagining an alternative reality if we’d made different choices—is a big part of your work. Are the shoulda/coulda/woulda blues a consequence of upward counterfactuals, when we imagine things would have turned out better? We envision the road not taken paved with unicorns, rainbows and sunflowers?

Yes, that’s exactly true. Because people by and large do imagine that the untaken alternative is, as you say, all sunflowers, rainbows and unicorns, it can be helpful to imagine a downward counterfactual [when we imagine life would have been worse]. 

“Spend a few minutes thinking about the ways you might be better off today than if you’d pursued alternative choices.”

When people do that they tend to see their lives as having more meaning, they feel more gratitude, and some research suggests they might even have a greater sense of the presence of God in their life. 

Imagine, for example, if you’d taken this other path you might never have met your two best friends. It’s a useful experiment to spend a few minutes thinking about the ways you might be better off today than if you’d pursued alternative choices.

That sounds like It’s a Wonderful Life.

Exactly! I’m a big fan of that film and all kinds of Hallmark Christmas movies.

We all have friends, or maybe we’re like this ourselves, who are plagued with regret over inconsequential decisions. They order the ribeye at a restaurant and when they see the salmon is served with asparagus, dinner is ruined because they feel they made the wrong choice.

That’s largely about what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls maximizing versus satisficing. People who are maximizers think it’s important to choose the single best option, while satisficers want to choose the option that fulfills their essential needs.

If I’m a satisficer, I’ll go to a restaurant and my goal is to eat something that’s delicious and filling and fits my budget. Anything I order that meets those criteria is successful. It doesn’t matter to the satisficer if the gnocchi is slightly more delicious.

If the maximizer orders the salmon and it turns out the gnocchi is slightly more delicious, then suddenly the salmon is a failure, because it’s not the absolute most delicious thing they could have ordered. Maximizers tend to feel a lot more regret because if your goal is to have the single best whatever, it’s easy to fail.

How can someone escape this maximizer trap?

It’s going to sound odd, but limiting your options seems to be helpful. There’s an argument that there’s a useful amount of research that lets you know what attributes you should be focusing on in making a decision. 

After a certain point if you continue to look at different options, you’re not getting any new information.

Some of us have big searing regrets. We weren’t at our father’s bedside when he died, or we didn’t say goodbye to a good friend before her death. How do we move past that?

Those are among the most difficult kinds of regret to deal with. 

I would say that one of the things we know is that we really want to feel a sense of control over the world around us. And there may be circumstances where we exaggerate how much control we have or how much opportunity we actually had to make things different. 

“We exaggerate how much control we have or how much opportunity we actually had to make things different.”

The reality is that if you lose a friend to a sudden heart attack or you’ve been spending weeks by a parent’s bedside while they’ve been in hospice and they passed away on the morning your went home to take a shower, it feels like there should have been something you could have done to be there in that moment. 

But, really, there wasn’t. You can’t never step away. Nor could you have anticipated that this was going to be the day that the heart attack happened to your friend. 

People sometimes look back on their lives and feel they wish they’d be braver, taken more chances. I should have said yes to the job transfer in Tokyo, or I should have hiked across South America.

There’s some evidence that people overestimate what their past opportunities actually were. It’s easy to look back on a period in your life and imagine that you had all this freedom, that you could have spent two years backpacking when you were between jobs. 

That said, if you feel all of your regrets are about “I’ve been too cautious and too hesitant,” then maybe that’s telling you something about the person you want to be. That’s one way regret can help nudge us forward toward a fuller life.

Should we make it our goal to be able to say at the end of our life, I have no regrets?

There are only two ways you can say that, one of which is implausible and the other problematic. If you’re saying, “I’ve never made a mistake,” that’s seems implausible. If that applies to anyone reading this, I heartily congratulate them on a mistake-free life.

The other thing that could mean is, I’ve made mistakes but I never felt bad about them. And I think most of us would say that’s problematic.

There’s a third possibility. I think some people who say “I have no regrets” actually mean, “I don’t ruminate on my regrets. I don’t dwell on them. I feel my regret. I learn a lesson and I move on.” 

That, I think, is great, healthy, and totally reasonable.