Regret: When Crying Over Spilled Milk Can Be Beneficial


People tend to think that regretting things that have already happened in the past or the things that are no longer changeable is useless. This attitude could be illustrated by the popular idiom, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.’

While it is true that regret has been linked with reduced well-being, it would be unwise to condemn this emotion as something entirely negative. These myths about regret could be driving people to steer clear of experiencing regret at all costs. Consequently, these individuals may fail to reap the benefits of regret for a more fulfilling life.

To avoid this loss, you should get to know more about the reality of what regret really is. This article will help you do just that. 

The nuanced nature of regret

Regret is an emotional and cognitive discomfort due to previous mistakes and lost opportunities, which is also accompanied by the desire to change the past and make different choices. Based on whether a situation is about future or past decisions, regret can be divided into two distinct categories:  experienced or retrospective regret and anticipated or prospective regret.

Experienced regret

Picture this: a voter decides to vote for Candidate A in her country’s presidential election. After winning the election, it becomes apparent that candidate A’s social policy positions have a detrimental effect on less fortunate communities. As a result, she experienced regret as she did not give enough consideration to vote for Candidate B. 

This instance illustrates experienced regret, which is the idea of evaluating past decisions in hindsight. This type of regret informs individuals regarding the level of their goal achievement. The regret that arises due to reflecting on past decisions allows individuals to evaluate the things that could have been and the reality of what they obtained. Thus, it allows them to acquire information on the level of their past goal achievement, which they can use as a reference for their future behavior.

Referring to the previous case, it was shown that the voter’s regret originated from realizing the wider consequences of her decision, particularly when they affected factors that weren’t originally given priority during the decision-making process.

Anticipated regret

One of the common misconceptions people may get regarding regret is that it only revolves around the past. The reality is that regret may arise due to repercussions that may happen in the future.

For instance, a newly graduated student has to choose between taking a chance with a startup in a field she is passionate about or going for a steady but less interesting position in a well-known company. 

This situation led her to experience anticipated regret as a result of this decision-making process, which happens when people anticipate learning the results of both the options they chose and rejected right away.

If she goes with the safer route, she might regret it later since she thinks she will lose out on fascinating opportunities and personal fulfillment. On the other hand, she also anticipated the regret of having to experience tumultuous struggles in her career due to following her passion. 

This type of regret is more common in situations where the available options are crucial and difficult. It acts as a warning signal for individuals, which allows them to be aware of potentially regrettable decisions. 

Both of the cases have illustrated the presence of regret in one’s decision-making. However, it is incorrect to assume that those regrets are detrimental to them.

For the voter, the regret allows her to reflect on the “wrong decision.” It will motivate her to be more thorough and wise when looking at the qualifications and experience of potential candidates for the next national election. 

For the college graduate, the emotion allows her to assess the desirability and hazards of her options. Thus, she has the opportunity to select the best course of action due to the warning signal.

When regret becomes detrimental

If regrets go unregulated, they may be detrimental to people. The output of excessive or uncontrolled regret is unproductive rumination, which happens when individuals continuously fixate on their mistakes without taking any corrective actions.

Excessive comparisons and the inability to find closure could fuel one’s rumination for those regretful situations. This further intensifies the experience of regret, self-doubt, and lower well-being. Without proper regulation, rumination leads to psychopathological problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Therefore, learning to regulate your regret is crucial to prevent these harmful repercussions. Doing so allows you to gain the most out of experiencing regret, learning from it, and enjoying the present moment without getting caught up on things that are no longer changeable.

The consequences of avoiding regret

Being associated with negative consequences, it may feel safer to opt out of potentially regretful situations. However, this approach is not recommended. As a negative emotion, regret could generate advantageous outcomes for one’s happiness. The importance of experiencing regrets lies in their role in development and learning.

While feeling regret may not be pleasant, it may help you to vividly recall your decisions and motivate you to make better ones in the future. This might aid you in achieving happiness because it has been shown that being able to identify unfortunate circumstances and draw insights from them is a sign of maturity and can result in happiness

Read more: Thе Paradoxical Rolе of Sadnеss in Achiеving Happinеss: Exploring thе Bеnеfits of Embracing Your Nеgativе Emotions 

Additional perks of regret

Aside from being important for one’s happiness, there are also a few additional benefits one could gain by experiencing regret. 

Enhances persistence to perform well

As Brene Brown, a social scientist and the author of Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,  said, “Regret is a tough but fair teacher. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.

This insinuates that by using regret as an avenue of motivation, growth, and learning, you may increase your performance and persistence in achieving any objective you set your mind to. This allows you to transform regret into a driving force for continuous improvement rather than merely a barrier.

Read more: Want to Achieve More? Discover the Link Between Motivation and Productivity 

Increases creativity and innovation

Regret could also have an impact on how you approach new tasks in the future. This emotion could motivate you to generate various alternative approaches and objectives regarding situations in the past. This would allow you to produce more innovative and creative solutions in a similar situation, which widens the range of options available.

Thus, properly managed regret could be the trigger for fresh ideas and imaginative solutions to many situations.

Promotes prosocial behavior

Negative emotions like regret foster empathy and motivate people to act selflessly and fairly toward others.  In a study about heroism, it was found that regret motivates individuals to take actions that are helpful to others. Regret is based on the perceived inconsistencies regarding what could have been and their meaning in life’s framework.

This second-guessing leads to a reduced sense of meaning in life. As a result, they are motivated to find meaning in their lives, and engaging in prosocial behaviors provides a way for them to re-establish it.

When regret is well-regulated, it not only lessens its negative effects on the individual but also enhances interpersonal dynamics by encouraging behaviors that improve social harmony and the welfare of the people around them.

Turning regret into a positive experience

You must regulate emotion to utilize regret as a tool instead of a hindrance toward happiness. To do so, here are a few practices you could employ:

Focus on the journey

In some situations, you may feel devastated by your results and second-guess all of the steps you’ve taken to get where you are now. However, it would be better for you to switch your focus on the process instead of the outcome.

This would allow you to experience enjoyment and accomplishment rather than dwell on excessive regret. 

Find silver linings

Another way to regulate regret is to find the silver lining. You can take some time and reflect on the lessons and perks you gained from the previous unfortunate circumstances. By doing so, you switch your perspective from solely focusing on the negative aspects to valuing how that situation has impacted you. 

You could make a “failure résumé” to aid you in doing this practice. Instead of outlining your professional accolades, you could list down all of your failures in the form of a résumé. This would enable you to view regrets as an observer rather than an actor, which could help you acquire insights from them.

Re-evaluate the what-ifs

Occasionally, the thought of what could’ve been may pop into your head. To regulate the regret that comes with it, you could re-evaluate the choices you didn’t take in an objective manner.

List down all the pros and cons of those choices and compare them with your actual decision. This would allow you to not overly romanticize what could have been and to acknowledge that the decision you made was not as bad as you imagined it.


The ultimate way for people to come to terms with their regret is by practicing self-forgiveness. The APA Dictionary defines forgiveness as “willfully putting aside feelings of resentment toward an individual who has committed a wrong, been unfair or hurtful, or otherwise harmed one in some way.”

It takes more than simply letting go of all the negative emotions related to what happened to forgive oneself. Rather, it involves the ability to admit that one is imperfect and that, as a consequence, one does not always live up to one’s ideal self.

Seek support

When you start to feel overwhelmed over your regret, you should consider finding help. It could be from your family, friends, or mental health professionals. Expressing regret to those you could trust can generate some perspectives and comfort. Thus, you must find the support you need on your path to betterment.

In conclusion

It is common for individuals to experience regret due to previous mistakes and lost opportunities and want to go back in time to reverse them. However, excessive regret would be detrimental to you.

Despite that, avoiding regrets would be less than ideal. As regret generates various positive outcomes, it is one of the emotions you should experience on your path to experiencing happiness in the long run.

After understanding how regrets can be positive, you should no longer discount this emotion and blame yourself for reminiscing about things that are no longer under your control. Instead, you should treat this emotion as something that has to be regulated to reduce its bad effects and increase its positive ones.

If you would like to see more resources on regret, check out the Happiness Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Happiness Science Labs today.

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