Expert Voices

Embrace Your Regrets in the New Year (Op-Ed)

regrets, sadness, looking back
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Amy Summerville is an assistant professor of psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The end of the year can be a happy time for reflecting on milestones and good times. For many of us, though, our minds turn to the times that we could have done better — after all, even Sinatra admitted that he had a few regrets. You may think you want to ignore your regrets, but new research suggests just the opposite: Embracing regret has many unexpected benefits.

Psychological scientists define regret as the negative emotion that results from thinking about how some past event might have been better if you personally had done something different. By some estimates, it's the most common negative emotion in daily life. Although regret can be a painful experience, and in excess, is associated with depression and anxiety, social psychologists have found several ways in which regret is good for you.

Regret helps us learn from our mistakes. When we talk about the things we regret, we're actually identifying the things that we think caused negative outcomes. "If only I had gone to the gym more…" identifies our couch-potato habits as the cause of this year's weight gain. John Petrocelli of Wake Forest University and colleagues found that people tend to feel the most regret about things that they realize they really could have done differently or about things that would have had an impact on a given situation. For example, people are more likely to think, "If only I'd gone running every weekend," than, "If only I'd become an elite ultra-marathoner," when feeling regret about exercise habits.

Memorably, an Internet user who posted a picture of a Sikh woman with mocking commentary on Reddit responded to the controversy about his post by taking time to learn about her faith and publicly apologizing for his ignorant and intolerant comments — showing the potential of regret to fuel personal growth.

Regret helps people do better in the future. Once we've identified the causes of negative events, the next step is to figure out what to do next. Regret helps us do this, too.

Research by Rachel Smallman of Texas A&M University found that people who have thought about how the past might have been different are better at recognizing things they can do better in the future. Because it's useful, people tend to feel regret for a longer period of time if it's related to their ongoing goals, as found in my research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Even after a breakup, for instance, you can carry lessons forward into your next relationship.

Not surprisingly, people who feel regret are more likely to take action to change something, as found by Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters at Tilburg University. After criticism of her lip-synced Inauguration anthem, Beyoncé performed a memorable a cappella version at the Super Bowl only a few weeks later — perhaps showing that she'd learned from the former incident. In contrast, Anthony Wiener might have been wise to do the same. So, if you want this to be the year that you quit smoking for good or get that promotion at work, thinking about the things that held you back last year means that you'll be more likely to make resolutions for which you'll really follow through.

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Talking about regret makes people feel closer to others. In new research, my collaborator Joshua Buchanan of Miami University and I looked at the regrets that people posted on Twitter in the last two weeks of 2011. The most common focus of regrets in these Tweets? Social relationships, from romantic partners to family to friends. When people wanted to feel closer to others, they were more likely to express regret, as published last month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Not all negative emotions work this way — talking about things that make you angry, for instance, isn't a good way to bond with others. Classic research by Elliot Aronson and colleagues from 1966 showed that typically high-achieving people are more likeable if they make occasional blunders than if they're completely perfect, which may be one reason that people see a benefit in talking about their regrets. Think of actress Jennifer Lawrence, who became more likeable and relatable after her famous fall at the Oscars. And Pope Francis — Times's Person of the Year — has drawn positive attention for expressing regret about parts of his past.

People often talk about "living life with no regrets," but doing so would cause you to miss out on the many benefits this important emotion has to offer. Instead, embracing the lessons that regret has to teach us and talking about them with other people offers a number of benefits. Thinking about what you regret about last year may be just the thing to make the new year your best one yet.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Miami University