No Regrets: A great prescription for good mental health

Over the years, I have talked to countless depressed people, and one thing I have learned is that regrets are a profound waste of time. The emotional cost of dwelling on ‘what could have been’ is just not worth it. I know we don’t normally think this way about emotions—we feel what we feel, and that’s that—but, let’s say, conservatively, that you spend even 10 minutes a day thinking about all the things you wished you had done differently. Doing the math, this adds up to 3,650 minutes per year, nearly 61 hours, almost 3 entire days, lost forever to the wasteland of regrets!

Of course, it makes sense to face up to our mistakes and learn from them. But doing so does not—and should not—lead to depression. On the contrary, healthy and effective people don’t ‘catastrophize’ their missteps or oversights. They recognize that any mistake that doesn’t kill them only enriches them. They now understand more than they did before, and they don’t have to do it again.

Regrets come about when people can’t get past having made a mistake. They don’t know how to achieve the psychological equivalent of brushing oneself off and getting back into the game.

Few things help me understand human nature better than learning about what people experience over the course of their lifetimes. One way that I do this is to watch biographies on television. These hour-long glances into the lives of various notables reveal that a lot of successful people had setbacks, disappointments and failures at some point in their lives. Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul of New York City, is just one example. As an entrepreneur and’wheeler/dealer,’ he experienced repeated frustrations and disappointments, including publicly facing bankruptcy and the loss of his fortunes. Yet as we all know, he picked himself up every time, dusted himself off, and went on to hit it big doing what he knew best, emerging victorious—and rich.

When you read or watch biographies of people you consider successful, you begin to understand something important: Successes matter more than failures. Donald Trump had disappointments, but his biography isn’t on TV because of these; you’re watching because of his success. Without his triumphs, nobody would care! Happiness and victory matter more than disappointment and failure. Disillusionment and frustration are awful things to experience at the time, but they are always temporary. They pale in comparison to the thrill of achievement and success. By not losing sight of this fact, you gain the psychological capacity to avoid depression and all the other things for which people swallow Prozac and Paxil once the regret-filled mindset takes over.

Think of regret as the psychological equivalent of a tightrope walker, balancing high off the ground and letting himself—indeed, making himself—look down, to deliberately disturb his own concentration. If a tightrope walker did this, we’d say, ‘How foolish and dangerous!’ But it’s interesting how so many people do the same thing mentally by stirring up all the pointless emotions triggered by their regrets.

When you focus on the things you feel you did wrong, you not only take precious energy away from doing things right, but, in the process, you begin to overlook the things you did right. For example, we all know the escalating real estate situation here at the beach over the last few years. How many times have you heard people who recently bought houses here say things like, ‘I wish I hadn’t been out on cruises (or traveling to Europe, or whatever) five (or ten—or fifteen) years ago. I could have bought a bigger house with all that money!’ Yes, but’were you having fun on those trips or cruises? If so, then what’s the problem? And, by the way, you were STILL able to buy your place at the beach. There’s always a negative to be found if you want to find it. Maybe if you had bought the beach house sooner, you would have regrets over missing-out on cruises and trips. Rest assured: If you apply yourself, you can always manufacture a down side.

I’m not trying to argue that different decisions might not have led to better results. But the fact is, what’s done is done. Life is full of tradeoffs. For most losses, there are also gains. The ability to recognize tradeoffs and to honestly feel, ‘What’s done is done,’ are two of the fundamental elements that separate the depressed from the non-depressed.

Learn from your mistakes. Figure out the lesson or principle to apply in the future. But don’t replay the facts of what happened over and over. Sure, regrets are a normal and natural part of life, and we all feel them at times, but the key is what we do with them. Think of them as unwanted psychological visitors. Summon your courage and vision to send them on their way. You will then be free to look at the present and to the future for the strength and passion to make your own dreams come true, again and again.