It's pretty safe to say that everybody, at one point or another, has felt the pain of regret—a missed opportunity, perhaps, or the sense of having made a mistake. But when Abigail Stewart, PhD, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, started tracking women in their late 30s, she found that this pain can be turned to your advantage. Specifically, Stewart has shown that women who take action on the basis of their regrets—getting a job if they felt they'd left the workforce prematurely, going back to school—score higher on physical and psychological measures of well-being later in life. The key, she says, is acknowledging the thing you wish you'd done, or done differently, without fixating on it, and using it as a motivator to make changes. In a bereavement study she's working on now, subjects who didn't dwell on what they failed to say or do not only recovered faster but reported positive effects like newfound wisdom and self-awareness. To transform a regret into a life enhancer:
- Stop obsessing. Consider that stewing over something in your past may be holding you back from enjoying life in the future and, at the very least, is not the best way to cope. Interestingly, a study this year in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience suggests that ruminating can more closely resemble avoidance than problem solving.
- Figure out how to make up for what's happened. Once you've identified a regret, ask yourself whether you can make up for it now. Maybe you wish you'd invested more in your career; if so, look into ways to do that. Break down your plan into bite-size components. "Small steps may feel like dragging the process out, but because they're likely to be manageable and therefore confidence boosting, this strategy tends to ensure success in the long run," says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a professor of psychology at Yale and author of Women Who Think Too Much.
- Reframe the past. If your regret can't be corrected (the ex-boyfriend married someone else, the relative you never told your feelings to died), Stewart's research has determined two effective approaches, both of which involve coming up with a favorable narrative of the past events. "You don't have to do anything to counteract the problem directly," she stresses. "The goal is to figure out, 'How can I accept that this is in my life and not let it define me?'"
In the first method, "putting the best face on things," the key is to pinpoint the ways the event you regret contributed positively to your story. This means framing your thoughts in "if…then" constructions, such as "If I hadn't moved far away from my family, I wouldn't have met my husband" or "Had I gotten married then, I wouldn't have pushed myself so hard to start my own business."
The second strategy, called "coming to terms," requires deeper work. Here you have to make peace with what happened, often forgiving yourself and those involved. Through such a lens, your conclusion might sound something like "I regret that I didn't see my mother more in the years before she passed away, but the decision made sense for who I was at the time."
Whichever method you choose, Stewart emphasizes that you're priming yourself for success. "If you try, getting past regret is a likelihood," she says. "People seem to be able to deal with almost anything."