So much of life is vague and uncertain, but regrets are pretty distinct. When you look back and feel like things haven't gone as you'd hoped, regret sets in—but it often attaches to something specific. Many of the situations you regret relate to explicit choices you made. More often than not, those decisions fall into one of three categories, and understanding what those are can help you avoid making choices that'll leave you feeling regretful in the first place.
One of the most frequent kinds of decision regret involves situations where you got carried away in the moment.
Many of our choices relate to "active goals" we have. And an active goal is simply one that's been energized by your motivational system. That basically means that it starts driving your decisions—you begin making choices in order to get it. Research from my lab suggests that when a goal gets energized, it makes things related to achieving that goal seem more valuable than they were when the goal wasn't active. And on the flip side, it likewise makes things unrelated to achieving that goal seem less valuable than before.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, when you're sitting behind the wheel of that beautiful new car, the car takes on new importance for you. And at the same time, other goals—like paying for your kids' college education—are suddenly less important.
The thing is, as soon as you achieve the goal (in this case by buying the car), the goal decreases in its "arousal"—in other words, it ceases to be motivating, so your decision-making engine needs to find a new fuel source. As a result, all of your other competing goals get a new boost of energy from your motivational system. And now you realize how important some of those other things were to you. Suddenly that new car starts to seem like a bad idea. You're hit with buyer’s remorse.
Not all buyer’s remorse happens in the context of purchases, of course, but it's also a decent bet that not everybody who gets married on a whim in an all-night Vegas chapel is pleased with their choice in the long run. If you think you might be in a situation where you're liable to get carried away, you need to reduce the energy behind the goal you're trying to achieve—and do it before making a decision based on it. Get some distance from the situation. Sleep on it. See if you still think the option you're considering is as important from a distance as it was at close range.
Not every regret involves what psychologists call an "act of commission"—someone actually doing something. In fact, research suggests that the older you get, the more you regret the paths not taken. For every person who routinely experiences buyer’s remorse, there's somebody who's so concerned about the risk of failure that they hold back from trying things that could've turned out great.
It's important to take a look at your own pattern of decision making; most of us tend to fall into one. How often do you err on the side of caution? It's always important to look before you leap, but if you're the type of person who typically opts out of opportunities, you may have the reverse problem—and need to leap more often.
If that's you, there are a few things you can do. First, ask yourself what the worst-case scenario really is. Some people jump right into imagining the worst possible outcome as the likeliest one, which it often isn't. And sometimes even the worst-case scenario isn't actually as bad as we may fear.
This isn't to advocate taking unnecessary risks. But there are plenty of times when the downsides of failure appear much worse than they are. Many people give up on the chance to give a talk in public, for instance, even though there's little real risk in bungling it. Even a bad talk isn't usually devastating to anyone’s life or career. And the benefits of giving a good one can be enormous.
One of my kids had a great high school teacher who used to take his students to Hawaii every summer. He knew all the safe places where kids could jump off high cliffs into the water. After watching the kids stare down at the water for a few minutes, he would ask them, "Are you going to jump or spend the rest of your life wishing you did?" They'd all jump.
Finally, there are many regrets that result from bad outcomes but not necessarily bad decisions. You did the due diligence. You picked the option that seemed like the right one. And things still didn't work out.
It's easy to focus on outcomes, but you have to resist that. Just as your negligence in the decision process isn't absolved by a positive outcome, your hard work isn't wasted just because a decision turned out badly.
Rather than regretting bad outcomes, treat them as an opportunity to learn for the future. What went wrong? Could you have tweaked your execution in order to tip the balance in the other direction? Was there a piece of information you didn't realize was important at the time but that would've helped? Or were you just unlucky?
But in these types of cases, you already are lucky, in one sense: Situations where you made a good choice that went badly are the ones that are easiest to learn from. And—over time—good decisions are more likely to be rewarded than bad ones.