POLITICIANS and business moguls caught out in some misdemeanor quickly trot out the word ‘regret’ when forced to face the world after the game’s up...but all too often it appears as though they’re rather more sorry they’ve been found out than regretful that they ever committed the deed in the first place.
Famously reclusive zillionaire Jean Paul Getty said he regretted the failure of his many marriages and that he would give all of his millions for one marital success.
Woody Allen says: “My one regret in life is that I’m not somebody else.”
Harry Potter creator JK Rowling says she regrets that she will never again be able to anonymously slip into a cafe as she used to do when creating that alternative world in an Edinburgh coffee shop.
The notion of regret may be bandied about too easily by some, but in general and even if we don’t voice the concern too often, we tend to look back and sincerely regret something we did (maybe too much) or something we didn’t manage to do – a road not taken, a romance not pursued, an opportunity or risk not accepted, or perhaps words we feel we should have said but shrank from.
According to research carried out among 2,000 British adults, three-quarters of us believe it’s not possible to live a life without regrets, and up there among the things we wish we’d done better are affairs of the heart.
Some of us wish we’d married later or married someone else, and others believe they should have played the field more before settling down. But over and above these amatory matters, we practical Brits place money, qualifications and health at the top of the list of things we look back and wish we’d handled differently.
Our biggest single regret is not having saved more money, followed by wishing we’d worked harder at school, taken more exercise, seen more of the world or never started smoking (the survey was carried out by Electric Zebra, a company that makes electronic substitute cigarettes.
Apparently we spend an average of 45 minutes a week pondering these regrets, which commonly range from losing touch with friends, not having appreciated an elderly relative more before we lost them, not telling someone that we loved them and not spending more time with our children when they were young. All in all, 45 minutes seems too short a time for this vast amount of sorrow and introspection.
It appears that when we’re still in the middle of life and the thick of daily dilemmas we look back and wish we’d done more of the sensible things like saving for university fees and retirement pots; other research shows that when we’re much older and very close to knocking on heaven’s door we classically regret not seizing more opportunities for derring-do and hedonism – the stuff that, if anything, probably shortens life but also makes it more marvellous.
All this proves just how complicated and contradictory human beings truly are.
But are the hours spent looking back wistfully at the road less travelled simply wasted time, seeing as most of us probably do very little about the things we’ve mishandled in the past?
Having regrets is no bad thing, says chartered psychologist Beverley Stone, author of Six Steps To Resolving Your Relationship Indecision. “It’s good, if you accept and take responsibility for the past and are now ready to make the decision to change rather than just accepting the regrets as things you can do nothing about. Simply looking back and imagining a life that would have been much rosier had you taken another path is a waste of time. You need to look at what stopped you crossing the Rubicon and taking risks – whether it was a career move you didn’t make, a relationship you didn’t pursue or an opportunity to leave a relationship that was bad – then learn from that regret and resolve to cross the Rubicon in future.
“I think people don’t learn enough from their regrets and continue to avoid taking risks rather than changing their old habit. Taking risks can be stressful, but so is standing still and stagnating. If you make the choice to seize a new and scary opportunity you have a 50-50 chance of life improving, and if you stand still you have a 100 per cent chance that life will stay the same and you’ll still be dissatisfied. “
Ms Stone says there’s a healthy level of regret we should all feel in order to examine our actions and learn, but those who don’t admit to regrets aren’t necessarily monsters. “They’re probably just people who’ve done their best to take the risks.”