A new study reinforces an age-old maxim that suggests anyone who seeks to overcome disappointments should compare themselves to others who are worse off. The researchers found that how we cope with regret can have an impact on our mental health, as well as our physical health.

Concordia University researchers examined how people deal with regrets. Published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, their findings have implications for both young and old.

“Our study examined how younger and older adults cope with life regrets,” said lead author Isabelle Bauer, Ph.D. “One common coping mechanism was through social comparisons, which can be both good and bad, depending on whether people think they can undo their regrets.”

“Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they’re going to feel better,” said Bauer. However, “when they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse.”

Looking towards others who are worse off can also have a marked effect on physical health: Participants who used downward social comparisons reported experiencing fewer cold symptoms. Overall, they reported a positive effect on their emotional well-being over the months that followed.

“The emotional distress of regrets can trigger biological dysregulation of the hormone and immune systems that makes people more vulnerable to develop clinical health problems — whether a cold or other potentially longer-term health problems. In this study, we showed that downward social comparisons can improve emotional well-being and help prevent health problems,” said senior author Carsten Wrosch, Ph.D.

The study recruited 104 adults of various ages who completed a survey about their greatest regrets — which ranged from not spending enough time with their family to having married the wrong person. Participants were then asked to report how the severity of their own regrets compared to the regrets of other people their age.

Unlike findings from previous studies on the same topic, age did not determine how effectively people reconciled their life regrets.

“The effectiveness of coping mechanisms depended more on an individual’s perceived ability to change their life regret than on their age,” said Bauer. “Moving on and being able to maintain good emotional well-being depends greatly on an individual’s opportunity to correct the cause of their regrets.”

Source: Concordia University