Regret has a power that can transcend treasured memories

January 12, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

The man sitting next to me on the flight from Milan to Chicago was full of regrets. Like me, he was returning home from Europe after a lengthy stay. But unlike me, he was filled with regret about all the things he hadn't done on his trip: the cities not visited, the meals not eaten, the charming pensione not discovered in time.

When the champagne arrived, he recalled the day he missed the wine sampling in Beaune. The announcement of the in-flight movie elicited a keen memory of having arrived too late for the Venice Film Festival.

Why, I found myself wondering, do some people seem compelled to dwell not on the pleasures of what was but on their regrets about what might have been? The emotion of regret, I decided, must have its own hidden agenda, one that serves some psychological need. Just what that need might be, however, eluded me.

Until, that is, last week.

It turns out that a lot of other folks -- psychologists and social scientists, to be exact -- have also begun to ponder the purpose of regret. In fact, it's spawned a whole "new field of regret study," according to recently published reports.

And what have the researchers come up with so far? Well, for starters, gender and age seem to play a role in the way individuals shape their regrets.

"Men were far more likely to say, 'I regret not sleeping with that woman,' while women said, 'I regret sleeping with that man,' " psychologist Thomas Gilovich told the New York Times. He also found that "middle-aged men were more likely to regret not spending time with their families, while middle-aged women were more likely to regret not having had better careers."

As for the age factor, young people "regret actions taken more than those not taken."

However, as people age, it works the other way: We regret not what we did, but what we didn't do.

Top three regrets? According to the "regret data," they are, counting down:

No. 3 -- Marrying or pursuing the wrong person.

No. 2 -- Staying with the wrong occupation or employer.

No. 1 -- Not getting enough education.

Well, that's what the formal research shows regarding regret.

Now, let's cut to my informal survey for a quick reality check. The question posed: What is your No. 1 regret?

From a single, 45-year-old professional woman: "What I regret most is buying into the feminist idea that you can 'have it all.' I kept putting off commitment in my personal life, thinking I had all the time in the world, and now I realize I don't."

From a 23-year-old male who graduated from college with a degree in history: "I regret that I didn't major in something like computer science that would help me find a job. I've been looking for two years and am still doing temp work."

From a 47-year-old married male: "My major regret is I didn't go to Vietnam. I was in the army and could have gotten myself transferred there. But I didn't. I feel I missed a key, defining part of my generation's experience."

From a 70-year-old woman, divorced once, widowed once, who has lived alone for the last 15 years: "I regret not having discovered my true nature -- who I really am -- until I found myself living alone. These last 15 years have been the best years of my life."

From an 18-year-old female: "I'll tell you what I regret. That when my parents divorced they couldn't stop being horrible to one another. And that I couldn't move away from both of them."

Such answers don't exactly jibe with the "regret data" provided by the professionals. But they do provoke an unscientific observation:

Regrets, like individuals, have a character all their own.

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