Edvard Munch - Evening. Melancholy I, 1896.
Edvard Munch – Evening. Melancholy I (1896)

In a modest research study interviewing young adults on their emotional states, regret was found to be the second most common verbally-expressed human emotion, right underneath love (Shimanoff, 1984). Given regret’s extrapolated prevalence, the intensity that we feel the “sensations” of regret, and therefore its untold influence on our decisions, it’s important to think about some of its purposes and utilities.

The evolutionary teleology of regret can be intuited as thus: the psychic agitation we experience is a warning to the organism that similar or equivalent pain, physical or emotional, will continue to occur if a course-correction isn’t made to prevent or improve upon the conditions that allowed the original loss or missed opportunity.  

A comparable evolutionary mechanism is that of social emergency: the mental experience of social rejection activates brain regions that overlap up to 88% with physical pain (Kross, et al., 2011); the intensity of this distress urges the organism to find new social bonds soon, lest it starve, or be hunted, alone in the wilderness.

In the same way that introspective anxiety can act as a motivator to prepare oneself for a challenge, lest you experience the humiliation of incompetence, so too does retroactive anxiety act to motivate the organism to avoid the recurrence of stagnation or blunder.

Just as Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy (see: Man’s Search for Meaning) is the orientation to a life-purpose to justify the inherent suffering of one’s existence, so too can a gratitude-abundance mindset justify the regrets of one’s past, because anything we regret can be reframed as a necessary lesson learned in the chronology of our growth.

Edvard Munch – Inger on the Beach (1889)

Gratitude applied to regret is the transmutation of psychology agony into an opportunity, a malleable restoration of self-agency from something previously disempowering, given that the object of our regret is in the past and seemingly unchangeable. Abundance superimposed onto this is the understanding that there are more opportunities on the horizon than we could ever conceive, and that it’s just a matter of shifting attention and adapting to new contexts. 

The mistakes or squanderings we regret were just as necessary to our existence as the beautiful, triumphant, and most profound occurrences of our lives. Our greatest moments of shame are tethered to our greatest moments of accomplishment because every moment was required for us to be the person we needed to be to fulfill the next moment.

Nietzsche was well aware of this, having experienced much alienation, loneliness, heartache, and illness in his short life, and seeking a redemptive perspective on not only his suffering but all suffering; his affirmation articulates it elegantly in The Will to Power:

“If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, pg. 532-533, Kaufmann translation

Adopting an attitude of holism, the philosophy that every factor in existence is, as a prerequisite, woven in an interdependent network, we can come to see our lives as symphonies of peaks and valleys, falsetto to baritones to silences, to crash and crescendo, all instruments and notes and motifs contributing to each other’s value. 

Edvard Munch – Summer Night by the Beach (1902–’03)

When we combine both logotherapy and a gratitude-abundance mindset, our regrets, or even grief, can very quickly, sometimes immediately, cognitively reorganize themselves in our minds with a downstream emotional reorganization that brings relief that heretofore seemed impossible. 

At the same time, a treatment of the emotional pain of regret is not a negation of the lessons that regret teaches us. Instead, regret is to be seen as a teacher that’s nudging us away from the most wrong decisions and closer to the most right, on a gradient spectrum. When we use past regrets to do better the next time, we’re cosmically honoring all the people involved in past situations, because no matter their role in our lives, their contributions, and our mistakes, cease to be futile, and instead contribute to the progress made in the present and future.

It was neuroscientist Hamdi Eryilmaz that found the brain’s subgenual cingulate to have altered connectivity to the orbitofrontal cortex and thalamus in test subjects experiencing regret-induced depressive rumination (Eryilmaz, et al., 2014). 

Regretful rumination embeds in us the anticipation of possible regret in future situations resembling the past. The extreme form of this would be something like post-traumatic stress disorder. The orbitofrontal cortex is involved in decision-making, social learning, context-specific response, inhibitory response, and inference of value (Fettes, et al., 2017). Essentially it’s a primary “higher-order” brain region, consolidating past, present, and future with emotion and logic, helping to steer beneficial decisions. Conscious of this, we can decide whether to leverage our regret-learning to make adaptive, empowering changes, or to accumulate maladaptive, pathological self-preservation, or repressive–perhaps even destructive–compensations.

“What is of issue here, is not whether the regret is rational (i.e. the issue of rationality vs. irrationality does not apply to the experience of regret per se), but rather whether what we do with our regrets is rational. Thus the rationality question should focus on whether it is rational to act on our emotions, and not on the emotions itself. These emotions are a given factor. Let us first focus on what we do with our regrets.”
—Marcel Zeelenberg, The use of crying over spilled milk: A note on the rationality and functionality of regret, (1999), Philosophical Psychology, 13, pg. 326-340.

Everyone processes and manages their psychological hurdles differently, because every regret, trauma, and temperament requires a different therapeutic approach. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to adopt an affirming attitude toward regret, just as it is to prescribe the same antidote to all patients. Acceptance, affirmation, gratitude, and positive reframing are useful therapeutic techniques, used at the right time and context, at the right stage of one’s psychological development, that can inch us ever toward contentment, expanding our ability to manifest our potential.

Edvard Munch, Toward the Forest, 1897c-1913, colour woodcut from two woodblocks
Edvard Munch – Toward the Forest I-III (c. 1897–1913)

Works Cited

Eisenberger, Naomi I. “The Neural Bases of Social Pain.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 74, no. 2, 2012, pp. 126–135., doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e3182464dd1.

Eryilmaz, H., et al. “Lasting Impact of Regret and Gratification on Resting Brain Activity and Its Relation to Depressive Traits.” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 34, no. 23, 2014, pp. 7825–7835., doi:10.1523/jneurosci.0065-14.2014.

Fettes, Peter, et al. “Cortico-Striatal-Thalamic Loop Circuits of the Orbitofrontal Cortex: Promising Therapeutic Targets in Psychiatric Illness.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, vol. 11, 2017, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2017.00025.

Kross, E., et al. “Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 15, 2011, pp. 6270–6275., doi:10.1073/pnas.1102693108.

Shimanoff, Susan B. “Commonly Named Emotions in Everyday Conversations.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 58, no. 2, 1984, pp. 514–514., doi:10.2466/pms.1984.58.2.514.

Zeelenberg, Marcel. “The Use of Crying over Spilled Milk: A Note on the Rationality and Functionality of Regret.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 12, no. 3, 1999, pp. 325–340., doi:10.1080/095150899105800.

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