Sometimes I ask myself, “If you have to die today, do you have any regrets?” The answer always comes back as, “I’ve done everything based on the information I had at the time, made the best possible decisions and corrected myself to the extent feasible when I realized a mistake had been made. So no regrets!

A couple of days ago I came across the 4 most frequently cited reasons of regrets: education, career, romance and parenting. As a matter of fact, 3 out of the 4 reasons resonated with me. If I had known what I know today, I’d have chosen a different major in college that would lead to a different career. I would have been a seasoned psychologist by now. If time could be turned back, I’d try to be a more open-minded and understanding mother who was keen on cultivating our daughters’ own interests and passion instead of stubbornly persuading them to do things I was convinced were good for them.

Most of us strive to live a life free of regret. According to journalist and author Kathryn Schultz, the inability to experience regret is one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. People who suffer from brain damage in the orbital frontal cortex are also unable to experience regret even in the face of very poor decisions. So to be fully functional and human, we need to learn to live with regret. Regret is the emotion we experience when we think our present situation could be better if we had done something different in the past. It requires agency (a decision has to be made in the first place) and imagination. If you sold 1,000 shares of a stock one day and the next morning the stock price went up, you would have experienced more regret if you had made $3,000 less vs. $300 less. In the first scenario, it’d have been painfully easy to imagine that you could have made different decisions that could lead to a much better outcome.

Schultz summarized the 4 consistent emotional components of regret:

1) Denial – “Make it go away.”

2) Bewilderment – “How could I have done this?”, “What was I thinking?”

3) Punishment – “I could kick myself.”

4) Perseveration – Trapped in an infinite loop of the above 3 emotions.

If we have goals, dreams and want to do the best in life, we should feel pain when things go wrong. As loving and caring individuals, we ought to feel remorse when our decisions cause sufferings to others or when our parenting styles hurt our children’s self-esteem. However most of our regrets aren’t as ugly as they are. Shultz suggested that we adopt the following tactics to make peace with regret:

1) Take comfort in its universality. Have you ever clicked “reply to all”, your heart sank instantly and you spend the rest of the day in agony and humiliation? Many people have done the same thing and survived. So we are in this together.

2) Laugh at ourselves. Humor or even black humor helps ease the pain of some of the more profound regrets.

3) Time will heal almost anything.

If I do have to die today, I don’t think my college or career choices would have mattered anymore. On deathbed, if people do have regrets, they regret about not spending enough time with their loved ones. “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly, but it reminds us that we can do better.” And we can do better starting today.

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