Home All Regrets, I’ve Had a Few: How finding the silver lining contributes to happiness and maturity

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few: How finding the silver lining contributes to happiness and maturity

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 November 2007

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Make the most of your regrets: never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.
~Thoreau (1817-1862)

This semester at the UEL MAPP program, I’m working in a small team on a consultancy project with the aim of applying Positive Psychology theory in a business context. Our chosen subject is leadership; thus for the last few months we have been researching the topic, reading up on management theory and finding as much academic literature on leadership as we can. We’ve also interviewed a number of CEOs and other Senior Executives from many large corporations in London to establish what positive psychology practices have been useful to them in leading their organizations successfully, and how these might be translated into positive interventions to disseminate to other, less experienced leaders.

Several interesting themes have emerged from our interviews, for example the ability of leaders to take risks, and to continue to learn throughout their lives, from failure and regret as well as from their acknowledged successes. All the leaders we interviewed were able to describe times when they took risks, both personally and professionally, for example, changing careers, companies or industries, or pressing ahead with decisions in the face of opposition.

All were also able to describe difficult events or experiences in the past which they regretted, and courses of action that they wished they could have changed. Referring to the birth of their disabled child, one said “Coming to terms with first few years was very challenging…but in retrospect it is the best work I have ever done.” Another, referring to a romantic relationship which ended badly, said: “It was an awful experience, but I learned a lot. It drove me to do better.”

Regret makes us feel a profound sense of sorrow, distress, disappointment, dissatisfaction or remorse. But is regret per se bad for us? Of course, it does have a negative effect on our well-being, but can this be changed? Is regret perhaps something which can and should be avoided by learning how to make the “right” decision in the first place? Or is it something that can and should be avoided by either adopting a more mindful approach to living or by challenging or changing ones thinking style after the regrettable incident? Or perhaps one should not fear the experience of regret at all, in the firm knowledge that there is no gain without pain?

Langer, Marcatonis and Golub’s research suggests several methods for preventing future regrets, among them approaching the decision mindfully, rethinking why the regretted action (or inaction) occurred, and starting with the assumption that one’s behavior made sense at the time given the circumstances. The only problem with the last option, of course, is that if one knew that one would regret the outcome of a course of action, surely one would avoid it in the first place.

A different approach to regret is taken by King and Hicks. They suggest that while the experience of the regret of lost goals (or lost possible selves) is indeed painful, the capacity to acknowledge and accommodate regrettable events is necessary for ego development, which itself is a crucial component of maturity. Thus the experience of regrettable events can be hugely beneficial in the longer term.

So how does all this relate to the question of positive organizational leadership? If the experience and accommodation of regret is necessary for maturity and happiness, we can be more open to taking risks and making mistakes, in the knowledge that we will learn and benefit from them. Equally, as coaches, therapists and positive psychologists, we can work to support business leaders and others in understanding and working through the process of accommodating (and ultimately assimilating) regrettable events.

The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides. Accept life, and you must accept regret.
~ Henri-Frederic Amiel (1856)




King, Laura A. & Hicks, Joshua A. (2007) Whatever happened to ‘What might have been’? Regrets, happiness, and maturity, American Psychologist, 62 (7).

Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2002) The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition . San Francisco, Wiley & Sons

Langer, E. (2005) Well-Being. Mindfulness Versus Positive Evaluation. In Snyder C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (Eds) Handbook of Positive Psychology, New York, Oxford University Press.

Luthans, F, & Avolio, B. (2003). Authentic Leadership Development. In K.S.Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. (pp33-47) San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

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Jeff Dustin 27 November 2007 - 4:03 am

It would be awesome if we could figure out a way to use regret…quickly…and get on with the rest of our lives. Isn’t that one driving force behind cognitive “disputing” & learned optimism? I don’t have an issue with the value of regretting, it’s the abundant dwelling upon the sorrows that is pretty worthless.

Christine Duvivier 27 November 2007 - 10:47 am


I enjoyed your article! I especially like the notion you raise of acknowledging and working-through regret: that’s what lets us move on and not carry it with us. My experience with self and clients is that it doesn’t need to take long — just needs full awareness. It’s good to see this raised in positive psychology because it has a role in positive emotion, engagement, and meaning (latter two require risk-taking).

Good luck with your program,
Christine (UPenn MAPP 2007)

Kathryn Britton 28 November 2007 - 10:32 am


Interesting! One of my puzzles working in a large corporation was the stated value put on taking risks and the actual widespread fear of failure. There seemed to be a conflict there. Risks are by definition uncertain, so valuing risk taking means accepting some frequency of failure.

I think leaders need to model effective risk taking, which means modeling effective failure. I moderated a panel of executive women at a women-in-technology conference. One question I asked all the participants was how they dealt with their biggest failures. I had to give them a bit of warning ahead of time, since it is not the kind of question they are used to being asked. But the answers made them seem so much more human — and also gave the participants an opportunity for vicarious mastery.

I hope we learn more from your project.



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