A couple of friends and I were talking about this the other day. One friend said she has no regrets, that if she does anything that makes her feel bad, she fixes it.
Yes, I try to do the same. I’m fine with apologizing and/or making amends when my behavior warrants it.
But what if you can’t fix it? What if it’s too late, if it’s something like letting love slip through your fingers, having or not having children, taking the wrong career path, or anything else that simply cannot be changed?
That’s the topic of “Making Up for Lost Opportunities: The Protective Role of Downward Social Comparisons for Coping With Regrets Across Adulthood,” a paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The gist of the study is that people with regrets over things that can’t be fixed feel better when they compare themselves with other people whom they think have worse regrets. Downward social comparison—it’s useful in all sorts of ways.
Researchers collected data through questionnaires which asked participants about their most severe life regret and whether there is still a chance it could be remedied. Participants also were asked to finish the statement: “Most people my age have regrets which are _____ than my own.” (They used a five-point Likert-type scale with 1 being much more severe and 5 being much less severe.)
I started thinking about how I would answer those questions, but the more I thought, the more the concept of “regret” disintegrated.
I wish I’d gone to college at the traditional age rather than in my 40s. It would have been fun, and perhaps my career would have had a more consistent trajectory rather than the odd zig-zags it’s taken. Maybe I would be more financially secure now. (Actually, according to this article, not getting enough education is the most commonly expressed regret.)
On the other hand, I launched into a pretty good life straight out of high school. I’ve met interesting people, traveled the world, had two careers. When I did finally go to college, I probably got more out of it than I might have at 18. And if I’d gone to college as a youngster, maybe I would have then spent years locked in a career that didn’t really suit me.
I don’t know what the negative consequences of my nontraditional education history are—you can’t measure what isn’t there. Nor can I know what I would have missed out on had I gone to college instead of straight to work.
So is that a regret? Only when I don’t think about it too hard. Under scrutiny, it’s a regret not worth having. It’s just life.
Other regrets are about things outside my control—some relationships, for example. But since I can’t control anyone else, they don’t count as regrets. They are sadnesses and a whole different issue.
And how could you answer the researchers’ second question? Unless someone has sat across the table from you and sobbed about missed opportunities, how would you know what their regrets are and whether they are worse than yours? You could only assume based on your own values, in which case you could only be wrong.
If simply deciding that everyone else has more regrets than you is soothing, then I won’t quibble. In fact, if downward social comparisons help your mood then they might also help your health: In a second study the researchers found that older people with regrets who consoled themselves with downward social comparisons had more positive affect and fewer cold symptoms (i.e. healthy and happy).
Regrets are terrible, I’m not surprised they can affect health. I’ve always been particularly fearful of them and have lived my life accordingly. But no matter what path you take, there’s always others not taken, and so regrets are inevitable.
Or are they? Maybe it just depends on how you think about them.