A lifetime of Regrets

Dr. Steve Mason
“We make some of our greatest gains when we see old things in new ways.”

Contact Dr. Mason by email at

The Best Laid Plans

The other day I came across a list of the Top Five Regrets that people report having. Take a look below and see how many, if any, apply to you:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I can’t really say that I identify closely with any of them. Is it me or is it a poorly constructed list? Asking around, I got one response that made me stop and think. A woman said that if she could somehow go back in time and alter the past, she wouldn’t. She said she was very happy with her life and if given the opportunity to meddle with what WAS she might not wind up with what IS. I thought that was very insightful way of looking at it. Lucky woman!

It’s unfortunate that so many people can, and do, relive their regrets on a daily basis. If only they had/hadn’t done this/that. Getting into the Could-a Should-a game, it occurred to me that I really didn’t have to worry as much or as often as I did. Maybe that was something I might regret…all that time I wasted contemplating things that never happened or did happen but weren’t that bad. But even here I ran into a problem. What if worrying is seen as a form of preparing? Does trying to envisage alternate outcomes provide an advantage? According to experimental psychologists, at least one study says it does:

A rat put up on a platform eventually had to jump down to one of two lower platforms. It could jump to the left where a food reward waited or to the right and get a mild electric shock. The two lower platforms looked identical so the rat would have to figure out that the food and the shock alternated sides first left then right and so forth. Brighter rats spent time “worrying” about which way to jump. It was as though they were engaging in a form of vicarious trial and error and they did significantly better. Duller rats just picked a favorite side and always went that way or simply jumped at random.

Look At It This Way

Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of experiences rather than regrets. As Alexander Pope said: To Err Is Human to Forgive Divine. So why continue to punish yourself with your poor choices from the past? Presumably you learned from your mistakes and like the brighter animal up on his perch you’re now going to think twice before jumping once.

As for me, I’m just going to have to give up on selecting a regret…that or wait until they come up with a longer list.

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