It might not exactly be rocket science, but research shows that regret can be be corrosive to your emotional well-being:
Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.
While I tend to be an overall optimistic person, I am sometimes guilty of replaying the past and getting wrapped up in what could have been or how life could have been different. While there is some value in going over counterfactuals in life for learning how to make better decisions in the future, too much of it can lead to lower levels of happiness.
In his excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert discusses how people tend to systematically over-idealize outcomes when they imagine could have been:
"Imagination works so quickly, quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products." (p. 24)
Here's how this process works:
- Imagination tends to add and remove details, but people do not realize that key details may be fabricated or missing from the imagined scenario.
- Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were).
- Imagination fails to realize that things will feel differently once they actually happen -- most notably, the psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.
These systematic errors can lead to decreased happiness by making ourselves believe life could have been better if only... Unfortunately, we become too confident in how we imagine lie might have been, we don't consider how things might have gone wrong in those imagined scenarios.
Rather than being regretful about life, it seems being thankful for it is a far better strategy. I just got a book for Christmas called Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier which explores the science of gratitude and describes how having an attitude of thankfulness is one of the most important things you can do to increase your overall happiness. I'm about halfway through the book and so far it is excellent!
One of my new year's resolutions this year is to intentionally focus on fostering an attitude of thankfulness in my life.