IS THERE A POSITIVE SIDE OF REGRET?

Regret gets a bad rap. We are admonished to avoid this feeling at all costs. However, as with most all-or-nothing thinking, labeling regret as completely negative is an extreme generalization.

When we take a closer look, regret is simply a personal reaction (with both cognitive and emotional elements) to the consequence of a past act or behavior. But is regret actually negative? When we consider that regret occurs as a result of a negative consequence, is it possible that we assign a negative value to the experience of regret due to the negative cause of it?

DOES REGRET HAVE A PURPOSE?

Regret in and of itself is not bad – it’s the way we handle it that presents a potential problem. Regret may have the purpose of alerting us to situations that are inconsistent with what we know is in the best interest for well-being, and then compelling us to make corrections for the sake of future well-being. Without it, we would never have a reason to contemplate any of our past actions and behaviors.

Visualize a buoy in the water. Its design causes it to always be right side up. Even if you push it under water or turn it upside-down, it quickly pops back up and it rights itself. It is possible that regret is an internal “righting” mechanism. It diverts our attention long enough for us to identify, understand, and correct problems so that we don’t repeat them in the future. Therefore, when we make mistakes, regret is there to help us to make adjustments and “right” ourselves so that we can properly manage future situations.

Our brains are designed to interpret and make sense of the world in which we live, with the overarching goal of protecting us from danger and demise. Therefore, it is continuously scanning and interpreting so that we can create a sense of order in the form of expectations (based on what we’ve learned through previous experience), which helps us to avoid potentially harmful situations.

Experience-based learning occurs through our experiences with cause and effect. We learn that certain decisions and behaviors lead to specific consequences. Regret, therefore, is a mechanism that compels us to stop and deeply consider something that has caused disruption to our well-being. The cognitive component helps us to connect the dots between cause and effect, and the emotional component (i.e., remorse, guilt, etc.) ensures that we never forget the lesson.

Regret triggers mental inspection. It channels our attention so that we can make important connections toward our understanding of how one thing (i.e., a decision or behavior) leads to another (consequence). Once we recognize that a decision/action has caused a negative consequence, we naturally experience the feeling of regret, wishing we had made a different choice. This is what helps us to gain insight and make better decisions in the future. However, when we become stuck in the mindset of wishing we could change the past – that is when we become mired in the negative emotional components, such as extreme remorse and guilt, which can ultimately lead to depression.

CAN REGRET BE USED AS A TOOL?

Regret, when managed properly, is a mechanism for growth. For growth, it is actually healthy to look back on situations to examine our mistakes, and even to feel a degree of remorse or regret because it can often lead to changes. However, when looking back, it is important to know the difference between a glance and a stare.

We should understand that when looking at the past, more is not better. A glance allows us to examine a situation just long enough to see the mistake, connect the dots, extract a lesson, and then quickly move on, However, staring at the past is often counterproductive. If we are simply staring at the past with no purpose in mind – simply wallowing in it without a plan to move past it – it becomes emotionally detrimental.

Rumination, constantly going over the details of a past occurrence, often leads to a state of entrapment. Although there is a constant examination of the past occurrence, there is no actual productive end in mind. Instead, we continue to focus on the mistake itself (instead of the lesson) until it becomes larger than life. As a result, we feel completely overwhelmed as if eclipsed in the shadow of it.

It is unfortunate when we become stuck in the negative emotional components of regret (i.e., guilt, remorse, anger/lack of forgiveness toward self), because we minimize the benefits of the cognitive component (lesson learned), which makes it extremely hard to move on. With so much focus on the past, we begin to lose precious moments of the present. And when we can’t properly focus on the present, it also jeopardizes the future.

If we can recognize that regret is a normal emotion that we all feel to some degree, and that regret can serve a positive purpose, then perhaps we can see it more as a tool – something that triggers us to actually SEARCH for the lessons provided by negative consequences. If we can become adept at finding the lesson, then we can recognize when regret has outlived its usefulness, and instead file away the lesson versus the regret itself.

REGRET HELPS US TO EVOLVE

When we feel regret, it is a sign that we wish we could have done something differently. It means we recognize and desire better experiences for ourselves. Without regret, we may not recognize when we could have made better choices, which would make it difficult for us to grow from our experiences.

From an existential standpoint, regret is an important mechanism that ensures that we process the meaning of our experiences. It protects our well-being by guiding us toward less disruption in our future experiences, which in turn maximizes our existence.

On the most basic level, we seek to maximize positive experiences while minimizing the negative ones (recognized by our minds as threats). Our minds are designed to learn from the negative experiences so that we don’t repeat mistakes that threaten our existence. In this sense, we are naturally wired for evolution and growth.

Therefore, regret is not positive or negative. Regret is simply a human reaction that coerces us toward improvement. It is a sign that we possess an inherent desire to positively evolve . . . which is something we share with all other humans.

“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past.
But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles,
and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.”
~Steve Maraboli~

Do you try to avoid regret? Is is actually possible to avoid it? Do you believe regret can be used positively?

FERTILE SOIL

[Image via Fayette County
Soil Conservation District
]

You don’t have to be a gardener to know that if you wish to grow healthy plants, you must provide a nourishing environment. If you plant seeds in barren soil, you will yield weak plants; and in toxic soil, the plants will die. The only way to ensure abundant growth is to plant healthy seeds in soil that is rich.

When I initially wrote on the topic of happiness, I described it as an ultimate state of well-being for which all humans tend to strive. Aristotle explained eudaimonia, the state of human flourishing, as the ultimate end sought by all human endeavors, and further explained that we are only able to reach that end through rational activity in accordance with that end. In other words, if we wish to reach this end, then we should engage in activities that will augment our efforts, and avoid activities that will detract from them.

Comparable to Maslow’s theory of self-actualization (reaching full human potential), eudaimonic happiness is a state of being that exceeds mere existence. It is a state of flourishing; thriving. It is the difference between existence and true fulfillment.

So, what does this have to do with gardening?

As I stated above, it is useless to strive for prize-winning plants if the soil you start with isn’t good. Happiness is something that is actively cultivated. Anyone who is concerned with living life in a fully actualized way must take a good look around themselves to assess whether the “soil” in which they are planted is indeed good.

Environment – Barren, toxic, or rich?

In barren soil, an environment devoid of nutrients, a plant will struggle to eke out an existence. Though it may grow, it cannot truly thrive. The same is true for us. Living in an environment that lacks life-enriching stimulation can lead to boredom and apathy.

Planting seeds in toxic soil puts them in direct contact with poisons and pollutants, which can ultimately kill the plant. A toxic human environment will not only impede our ability to flourish, but can even diminish our ability to exist. Attempting to survive in an abusive, unsanitary, unsafe, or any other type of negative environment can poison (or kill) the body, mind and spirit. I can’t express enough the importance of removing yourself from this type of environment.

Rich soil supplies an optimal mix of nutrients, thus an environment conducive to growth. Like plants, human flourishing is dependent upon the environment; it cannot occur in a barren or toxic environment. We should seek to immerse ourselves in an environment rich with growth-stimulating elements which will provide opportunities to expand our minds, as well as increase our exposure to peak life experiences.

Relationships – Am I growing amongst weeds?

The biggest drawback to having weeds is that they draw essential nutrients away from the roots of the primary plant, robbing it of its vitality. Weeds are relationships that distract us, cause us to settle for less, discourage us from seeking more, or poison us with negativity. If our goal is to flourish, then we must consider the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves. We should ask the following questions: Do they encourage me to be my best? Are they also seeking to flourish? Are they critical of me? Do they have a similar value system? And most importantly, do they contribute to the feeling of flourishing . . . or do they detract from it?

Activities – Do I actively till the soil?

Gardeners know the key to vital growth is to feed the soil, which in turn will feed the plant. When it comes to well-being, there is no one more responsible for the outcome than us, and a very integral step is to consciously cultivate our environments so that we can focus on this goal.

Eudaimonic happiness does not magically or accidentally happen, nor does it happen TO us. It occurs as a result of our own striving TOWARD it. Couch potato activities will not move us toward it, whereas activities such as study/reading, volunteering, and travel will. As we wake each day, we should go about seeking opportunities that allow us to expand our minds, help others, and explore and enjoy the world – the activities of human flourishing. Actively cultivating our environments strengthens the roots of this endeavor.

“Even the richest soil, if left uncultivated will produce the rankest weeds.“
~Leonardo da Vinci~

What kind of environment are you in? What have you done lately to cultivate your own soil?

Related Article: THE ACTIVITY OF HAPPINESS

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THE ACTIVITY OF HAPPINESS

In my final thoughts for this series on happiness, I would like to address the original problem posed in The Secret to Happiness: How to define happiness.

Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions:
    a. a state of well-being and contentment
    b. a pleasurable or satisfying experience
In this discussion, I am not referring to specific experiences or brief feelings of pleasure. I am more referring the first definition; a state of well-being and contentment.

To further explain, I would like to make reference to Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his work, Nicomachean Ethics, the word happiness was translated from the Greek word, eudaimonia, which is more accurately defined as “well-being” and relates to the idea of human flourishing. Therefore, in his discussion of happiness, he is actually discussing “well-being.”

Aristotle explains that every human activity aims at some desirable end. The highest ends are “self-sufficient” (ends in themselves) while others are considered subordinate or intermediate, meaning that they are means to higher ends.

“Happiness is desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. But honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient.” Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1)

In other words, we seek happiness for its own sake, whereas we seek all other things ultimately for the sake of happiness. He further explains that happiness is the only good that we seek for its own sake. This means that wealth, power, success, and even intelligence are all sought, not as an end in themselves, but for the sake of happiness. With this understanding, it becomes easier to appreciate what Aristotle meant when he said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

A second important point is that Aristotle treats happiness as an activity:

“Happiness is not a state; we must rather class happiness as an activity. Some activities are necessary, i.e. choiceworthy for some other end, while others are choiceworthy in themselves. Clearly, then, we should count happiness as one of these activities that are choiceworthy in themselves, not as one of those choiceworthy for some other end. For happiness lacks nothing, but is self-sufficient; and an activity is choiceworthy in itself when nothing further beyond it is sought from it.” Nicomachean Ethics (Book 10)

Using the words activity and choice, he is implying that happiness involves ACTION. It is not something that you passively await to gain. It involves choosing HOW you wish to live, and participating in the activities that are conducive to that end. Therefore, happiness is the activity of living well.

Can this be applied to modern life? Well, if we accept that happiness is the highest end that we all seek, and that it involves the action of living well, then we can use these concepts as a basis for creating a life plan.

In A Guide for Rational Living, Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy, said, “In many important respects, then, action, particularly creative, intensely absorbing activity, is one of the mainstays of happy living. Believe otherwise and live by a philosophy of inertia and inaction, and you will often sabotage your own potential satisfaction.” Here, Ellis is saying that action is a characteristic of happy living. Fulfilling activities promote happiness, and I believe that fulfilling activity is accompanied by happiness; i.e. happiness of pursuit.

Eudaimonia, translated as “human flourishing,” is very much related to the modern concepts of self-fulfillment (the fulfillment of your capacities) and self-actualization (realizing one’s full potential). The activities which create fulfillment will be different for each person. However, it is imperative that we define this for ourselves, and actively participate in those activities. This is what creates the type of happiness that will persist despite the ups and downs of life.

In my contemplation of this subject, my goal was to explore the idea that happiness comes from within, how thinking can affect mindset, and how to practically apply the findings to everyday life. In this article series, I uncovered 4 ideas that I could put to immediate practical use:

  • Choose to have a positive frame of mind
  • Refuse to be unhappy
  • Alter or eliminate sources of unhappiness
  • Engage in actions that create fulfillment
Though not exhaustive, I see this list as both a foundation upon which I can continue to build, as well as a litmus against which I can measure all future pursuits. Additionally, this list highlights one very important thing: Happiness is an action word. It requires activity, therefore you will never find it by sitting and waiting for it.

How active are you in creating conditions for you own happiness? How many of your current activities hinder your ability to live well (happiness)?

This article is third of a 3 part series. Read parts 1 and 2:
THE SECRET TO HAPPINESS
PRESCRIPTION FOR UNHAPPINESS