SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)
With so many Americans pausing during the pandemic to take stock of their lives, it’s inevitable that some are sifting through uncomfortable feelings of regret.
Whether it is lamenting a suddenly stalled career, mourning a much-anticipated vacation, or grieving time lost with loved ones, it’s hard not to recall the last 18 months more for the missed opportunities than for the achievements.
“Right now may seem like a time where there’s some excitement about new jobs opening up and new opportunities,” says Neal Roese. “Yet, we’ve also been hard hit by what seems to be a lost year, a year that we can’t make up.”
Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, is an expert in the psychology of regret, the topic of his book, If Only. He explains that regrets are a perfectly normal—even essential—part of being human. And regrets that have grown out of the pandemic’s circumstances can be a force for good if we contextualize and learn from them. However, if nurtured too long, they can have negative effects on our mental health.
Roese offers advice on how to manage pandemic regrets.
One of the main ways that people cope with regret is by reframing it. So if you’re feeling upset about how the past has unfolded, Roese recommends reframing your focus beyond your own experience to see the bigger picture. Regret by its very nature involves a short-term focus, where we tend to home in on a single decision, rather than a series of decisions.
And the broader context of the pandemic is that it is a once-in-a-lifetime event that has threatened the well-being of everyone across the globe. Because it has also impacted each of us so dramatically on an individual level—our jobs, families, health, and security—it is easy to lose sight of that larger view.
“Maybe, with the passage of time, we’ll be able to put it into perspective and see that this is one of the most unique, powerful, and consequential experiences that any of us will have,” Roese says. “Most major events in history are things we read about in books. But how many of us have actually lived through something as tumultuous as this?”
Pausing to take in the magnitude of the pandemic’s shared tragedy can help absolve regrets, he says.
“Giving yourself some perspective helps you understand that your experience is part of a larger system of interlocking forces and events,” he says. “It also makes moving forward easier.”
For example, if you are kicking yourself for having overspent on that delicious Saturday-night meal, it may help to take a step back and review it in the context of all of your nonnecessity purchases over the past year. The value of taking a broader view is to see more clearly how single decisions fit with your overall life priorities.
Looking back at the trials and tribulations of the past, people often blame themselves—whether circumstances were actually under their control or not. By obscuring this distinction, people are showing a very natural, and often unconstructive, illusion of bias.
“Like the gambler who blows on the dice before rolling, we assume that we can influence results more than we can, even for random events,” Roese says.
The illusion of control is one of a set of basic cognitive biases that affect each of us. It can be useful in helping us persevere in the face of tough challenges, but it can sometimes get us into trouble. Because the illusion of control involves a biased reading of reality, it can distort how our minds reflect upon difficult situations such as our pandemic work experiences.
“Regrets generate alternative pathways and actions in our brains. They may also provide options to try in the future.”
— Neal Roese
For example, parents may feel mixed emotions, wishing they could have made different decisions to manage their job, remote schooling, and family responsibilities. But in reality, much of the burden was beyond their control—something had to give. The pandemic dealt a crushing blow to women in particular, with millions leaving the workforce as they shouldered the majority of caregiving responsibilities in the wake of school and childcare closures.
The simple recognition that the illusion of control can affect nearly all of us can be a pathway toward a reduction in self-blaming for any and every misfortune. It offers us the opportunity to reorient ourselves to those areas of life where we do have some control, such as interactions with friends, family, and close work colleagues.
“When we focus on those things that are within our control, we’re setting ourselves up for a healthier outcome,” Roese says. “If we can take some steps to correct, fix, or improve upon what we’ve been doing, we’re in a much better position.”
Roese also points out that that regret does have an important upside—it can help us see how we might change things for the better going forward.
“Regrets generate alternative pathways and actions in our brains,” Roese says. “They may also provide options to try in the future.”
He advises looking to the future as much as possible. “As you take stock, it’s key to shift your thoughts from regrets to opportunities,” Roese says. “Ask yourself: Of all changes, which were the positive forces in my life? Which can I continue? If you can draw lessons, that’s the best possible outcome.”
Ruminating on the past can also inhibit people from acting. And research suggests that people tend to feel more regret when they do not try something versus when they try and the attempt doesn’t work out. So Roese has a suggestion: find one positive action you can take immediately.
For example, many professionals have felt disconnected from their work and colleagues, or insecure about their productivity. Rather than dwelling on these feelings, a positive action might be opening up to others, including colleagues, with these struggles.
“By being vulnerable and sharing a personal detail, you are forging a stronger connection with another person,” Roese says. “That’s a recipe toward greater intimacy that strengthens everyone in a working relationship.”
Roese cautions that we’re in a liminal moment. With the delta variant surging and the economy still uncertain, we’re not “done” with the pandemic.
Under this perceived threat, our psychological immune system switches on its defenses—and doesn’t switch them off. When a threat lingers, in other words, people get “stuck” in emotional narratives that make moving on hard.
“The pandemic multiplied this psychological experience many times over,” he says. “COVID is a long-running, slow-motion drama that makes it especially hard for us to cope.”
With emotional closure still far on the horizon, it is okay to not feel okay yet. It is also understandable that not everyone feels ready to reframe or learn from their regrets.
“With the distance of time, we can look back on an experience, see that we survived, and focus on moving forward,” says Roese. “It doesn’t feel like a lot of us have gotten there yet with COVID.
Susan Margolin is a writer based in Boston.