No regrets.

Do you spend time worrying about what happened — and what didn’t happen — and regretting your choices?  Don’t.  It’s bad for your health.

An article in the May 4, 2012 issue of Science magazine reports on the neurobiological effects that dwelling on regret has on people’s health and mental outlook, particularly for older people.  While experiencing regret can be a learning experience for young people, that emotion seems to have an increasingly negative impact on us as we mature.  This study concludes that focusing on regret results in depression and other health issues.

The authors identify several ways to avoid the negative effects of regret:

  1. Be clear on what you can and cannot control.
  2. Don’t assume responsibility for things you cannot control.
  3. Stick with the facts and stay away from thoughts about “what could have been.”

This study is primarily focused on the characteristics of mentally healthy older adults (who are not focused on regret), but I believe there is a lesson here for everyone — and especially for leaders.  The authors emphasize that regret has value for younger people, because they may have the opportunity for “do-overs” — to learn from mistakes, to fix them, and to avoid repeating them in the future.   Seniors, they suggest, will have fewer opportunities to make the same choices again, as well as fewer chances to repair them, and therefore they find less benefit in dwelling on them.

I disagree.  I think that, whatever age we are, we need to consider the impact of our choices and what we can learn from them.  At every point in a career, leaders need to be aware of the impact of their decisions and how those choices  — and future choices — affect people.  Leaders can never stop learning from the effects of their choices.   Just because, as we get older, we have fewer opportunities to “get it right the next time” doesn’t absolve us from continuing to learn.

However, this study also suggests that leaders can benefit from moving forward, after having extracted the lessons from a decision.  Regretting decisions or actions that can’t be changed is pointless, at any point in a career.  The challenge to good leaders is to learn from past decision and move on, minimizing the regret and maximizing the learning.

After all, it’s better for your health.

The article noted above is by Stefanie Brassen, Matthias Gamer, Jan Peters, Sebastian Gluth, and Christian Buchel, all in the Department of Systems Neuroscience, University Medical Center Hamburg- Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.  “Don’t Look Back in Anger!  Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging” appeared in the 4 May 2012 issue of Science.

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