What's better, to live a life without regrets or to have lingering pain over past mistakes? At first, this seems like a dumb question. Almost all of us would choose to avoid the pain of wishing we'd done things differently.
Regrets, people often feel, are to be avoided. Mistakes may be unavoidable for us fallible humans, but they should be kept to a minimum. And when they do occur, the best course of action is to ignore or reframe them as inevitable steps on our journey to the present.
That seems logical, at least until you consider that one of the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy is an inability to feel regret. As author Kathryn Schulz argues in her TED Talk on the subject, "If you want to be fully functional, and fully human, and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret, but with it."
Counterintuitively, she and other experts argue, feeling regret is essential for living your best life. You can't avoid or hide from it. You have to look it straight in the face.
Regret as learning tool
No one is saying, of course, that obsessive wallowing in your past mistakes is a good idea. Beating yourself up endlessly over a regret isn't healthy or useful. But neither is a "no regrets and never look back" mentality. Instead, the best way to view regret is as a wise teacher, leadership expert Manfred Kets de Vries recently argued on Insead Knowledge.
Regret "forces us to engage in a retrospective analysis to understand why we thought or acted the way we did. Such a review may help us see specific patterns or behaviors that have made us who we are, but also kept us from leading a different life." Thinking about past screwups teaches us (hopefully) about flaws in our thinking, and that can lead to smarter decisions going forward.
"Regret is our brain's way of telling us to take another look at our choices; to signal that some of our actions had very negative consequences; and to try things differently in the future," he adds. If you keep telling yourself, "no regrets," that learning isn't going to happen.
Hiding from regret doesn't make it hurt less. Action does
Plus, science suggests hiding from regret won't even help you avoid its sting. That's because, if you're not looking your past choices square in the face, you're not correcting for them. And action, recent research shows, is the best way to make regret hurt less.
So if you're tortured by your failure to travel when you were young, science suggests you consciously plan an adventurous trip each year now that you're older and wiser. Upset about a broken friendship? Try making amends, etc.
We're all flawed, and that's OK
Finally, acknowledging and pondering our mistakes, rather than ignoring or rationalizing them, reminds us that we are valuable and worthy despite our flaws. And so is everyone else. That sort of acceptance is the basis both of real self-esteem and of true kindness.
Schulz sums this up to close her talk: "The point isn't to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them ... We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly. It reminds us we know we can do better."