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Introduction: What is regret?

Regret has been defined as a negative emotion predicated on an upward, self-focused, counterfactual inference (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Zeelenberg, 1999). Regret feels bad because it implies a fault in personal action: you should have done it differently, hence self-blame is a component of regret (Connolly Zeelenberg, 2002).

Regret has received research attention throughout the years in fields such as psychology and economics, particularly from decision theorists, who have studied the key role this emotion plays in decision-making processes and in producing adaptive behaviour (e.g., Bell 1982; Loomes and Sugden 1982; Byrne 2002; Connolly and Zeelenberg 2002; Roese and Morrison 2009).

4 core regrets by Daniel Pink

  • Daniel Pink is the author of ‘The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward’. He believes that regret becomes a pointer to what makes life worth living by revealing what we value most

  1. Foundation regret - “if only I’d done the work”

    • Small decisions that accumulate to bad consequences

    • If it arises from the failure to plan ahead, work hard follow through and build a stable platform for life

    • Example: “If only I’d been more disciplined with my spending and investing, I’d had more to show for my hard work over the years.”

  2. Boldness regret - “if only I’d take the chance”

    • When they had an opportunity at one point in their life to do sth beyond play it safe, they chose not to do that

    • Arises from the failure to take full advantage of the stable platform built by foundation regrets, to use it as a springboard into a richer life

    • Example: “If only I’d taken that trip before I had kids.”

  3. Moral regrets - “If only I’d done the right thing”

    • At a certain point people could do the right thing but they finally did the wrong thing

    • Example: “I wish I hadn’t cheated in the competition.”

  4. Connection regrets - “If only I’d reached out”

    • The most common regret

→ Getting to the end of the life, relationships matter most

  • About the relationships, which you have had or you should have, come apart through drifts

  • It is too late for people to reach out, causing them to regret not doing so earlier

  • 2 barriers of reaching out

    1. It is going to be awkward / weird

    2. the other side is not going to care

→ The reality is always the opposite, best manifested by asking yourself “how would you feel if he/she reached out to you?”

→ Confront it as it is less fearsome than you think

How the 4 core regrets match what we want in our life

  1. Stability

  2. A chance to learn and grow so that we can lead a psychologically rich life

  3. Want to do the right thing

  4. Love and connection to other ppl

Significance of Regret in HK + Examples

In Hong Kong, especially under the highly competitive and pressurised societal views and expectations, regrets as a core mental health issue is highly common. A recent research conducted by the department of rehabilitation science by Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Richard Huan Xu, Ling Ming Zhou, Dong Wan 2021) conducted questionnaires in five cities in Southern China, investigating the effect of shared-decision making with doctors and decisional regrets (for non-depressive patients).

Results: there are significant direct negative effects of decisional regrets, reducing the negative influence. In conclusion, the implementation of SDM can decrease a patient's decisional regret and improve their wellbeing.

This is applicable to society to some extent (except for individuals who might have other mental health illnesses). We could see the importance of sharing and discussing in managing regrets.

Looking at the trend in Hong Kong, most teenagers are prone to depression and other mental health issues with high percentages of around 41%. Many of the students aren’t comfortable in sharing their personal experiences or struggles with close ones, meaning they will have a hard time dealing with negative thoughts that surround them.

Factor Leading to Regret

  • Inability to escape the cycle of negative, irrational thought

As a famous construction of cognitive behavioural explanation of psychological behaviour, Beck’s negative triad for depression can also be applied to regrets. Patients dealing with regrets often have rigid and inflexible mindsets, where patients blame themselves for what has happened, rather than backing up a step to see their behaviour in a wider context and understand why. This will lead to a toxic regret, where regret isn’t beneficial to one’s realisation. Regret is also composed of the magnification of ‘self’ and makes unnecessary comparisons.

With good control and healing, regret can be reversed into a positive aspect, where one can use the past as a stepping stone to make better choices in the future.

Misconceptions on Regret

  1. Anti-regret Philosophy:

    • It is impossible simply because everyone has regrets

    • Such psychological self-trickery is common. Sometimes it can even be healthy. But more often the performance prevents people from doing difficult work that produces genuine contentment

    • Regret is not dangerous, abnormal, or a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy, universal, and an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. Done right, it does not need to drag us down; it can lift us up.

  2. Be positive all the time and ignore the regrets

    • Positive emotions should outnumber our negative emotions, yet we need some negative emotions that instruct us

    • Our most prominent negative emotion is regret as it clarifies us what and how we should be doing

  3. Regret doesn’t help with the status quo

    • Regret does hurt, but it teaches us

    • If you avoid the pain, you don’t get any of the learning

    • Regrets are one mechanism for learning how to improve your decision-making – a signal that maybe you need to rethink your strategy

What you can do:

Shifting your mindset → let the inside voices and outside voices sink in

Regret may be inevitable, and stopping negative thinking is never simple. It is important to instil the idea of ‘mistakes can happen at times’ and ‘some situations are determined to be’. The idea of converting negativity into opportunities for growth and change.

Some regrets originate from guilt, wronging and remorse. Many may say “I absolutely should’ve / shouldn’t have done that.” It is important to realise that a negative mindset will increase the tendency to ‘magnify’ the pathway one did not take, instilling the idea of the other pathway as ‘better’. In some circumstances, there is no certainty for an event to happen, which means one must appreciate the way they had thought and decided based on the values and information they had at that time. Afterall, there is no reverse to how you think, there is only building on what you think.

However, if the situation was distinctly regretful to oneself, one could try to talk or step into the shoes of that person or situation. (Reconcile) Understanding the hard truth might occasionally be the way out, time will progress and soon our mindset will be able to compensate and empathise with our own actions. Sometimes understanding yourself before others is crucial to let go of the burden (after all, the other person or situation may have already let go of the event).

How others can help:

  • Reconnect, readapt, restore

It may be hard to explain to trusted adults, loved ones and friends, but they are always there to support you. Sometimes a talk with a fresh view may be able to defog your mind and allow you to feel supported and understood.

As a supporter, allowing them to have their time to heal from their regrets is also important as they might be too closed in. There will be times when they will not fully appreciate your support, but it is important to understand their situation and accept them. Always being there for them and checking if their symptoms worsen are vital. If not, professional help may be needed.

  • Cognitive reframing

This psychological technique consists of identifying and changing the way situations, ideas, experiences and emotions are viewed. It involves:

  1. Recording your thoughts

  2. Reducing catastrophic thinking by reversing the magnification and irrational thinking

  3. Disputing – challenging the reliability of your negative thinking and thinking more rationally, e.g. “What's the worst that can happen if my view of this situation is correct?”

  4. Guided questioning – questioning yourself in multiple ways to find the view that is rational and achievable.

This technique is used by professionals apart from using cognitive behavioural therapy (if negative thinking becomes too overwhelming). It can also be conducted by yourself through meditation.

Share your ways!

My experience on regrets is: “I shouldn’t have done this, now I am regretting it”. I then applied this to my present self by thinking in the shoes of my future self: “I shouldn’t have spent too long regretting the inevitable past, but instead should have paid more effort in improving, changing and accepting myself.” This allowed me to realise my needs to escape this cycle and move forward.

Feel free to share with us and others your take on regret! Your experiences/morals/ideas will be valuable to those who may need help, and we can all share the sense of compassion as a community that unites us all, together!



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