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Can a Negative Emotion, Like Regret, Actually Make You Happier?

Can a Negative Emotion, Like Regret, Actually Make You Happier?Assay: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the important role of negative emotions in a happy life.

Some people seem to believe that the purpose of a happiness project would be to achieve a life in which you were 100% happy, 100% of the time. This isn’t realistic, and in any event, even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable.

Negative emotions are a key part of rational thought and effective performance. Also, up to a point, they can be of great service to happiness. They’re loud, flashy signs that something isn’t right. Because they’re so unpleasant, they can sometimes prod us to take action when nothing else can. For instance, envy and deception have helped me to make useful changes in my life.

I just finished Neal Roese’s book, If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of regret. Regret is so very painful! But there have definitely been times in my life when I’ve been able to harness regret to make my life happier.

For instance, when I was in college, I did almost no extra-curricular activities. By the time college was over, I wished that I’d been more involved. I felt I missed some opportunities to do fun things, engage more deeply with other people and the school, etc. That regret was very powerful.

When I got to law school, that regret gave me the fuel I needed to push myself to do more activities, like the law journal and Barristers’ Union. And the law journal, in particular, ended up being a huge engine of happiness for me.

Roese points to studies that asked adults of all ages what, if they could live their life over again, would they do differently? The top four answers, which appeared consistently across many different studies, in the same order, were:

  1. Education
  2. Career
  3. Intimacy
  4. Parenting

Roese makes the significant point that people tend to have more regrets when they still have opportunities to act. “When there is still a chance to make a difference,” he writes, “regret persists.”

I’ve begun paying a lot more attention to the flashes of regret I get during the course of my day. Instead of trying to escape from that discomfort, I’m trying to focus on it, to see if I can find clues about myself.

And I often remind myself of the observation from Publilius Syrus: “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” This is so, so, so true.

(Interesting, somewhat random tidbit about regret: Do you remember getting the advice that, when taking a standardized test, you should be very wary of changing your answer? that changed answers were usually incorrect? Wrong! reports Roese. It’s usually better to change an answer than to stay with your first response.)

* * *

I’m a member of LifeRemix, so I’m biased, but I do love visiting the blogs rounded up there.

Visit my companion site, the Happiness Project Toolbox. It’s a site that helps you organize and track your own happiness project, with eight free tools. Plus you can see what other people are doing, which is fascinating.

Can a Negative Emotion, Like Regret, Actually Make You Happier?

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Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project, a #1 New York Times bestseller. You can also watch the one-minute book video. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central.

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APA Reference
Rubin, G. (2018). Can a Negative Emotion, Like Regret, Actually Make You Happier?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jun 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.