To be human is to have regrets. There will always be things we wish we hadn’t done, events we wish we could undo, words we wish we’d said a little more often. But how can we go about turning those regrets into something positive and productive? If we can’t go back in time, what can we do to escape the whirlpool of regret and sadness?
Lucky for us, Clemson University’s Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord wondered the same thing. In a recent study — the first of its kind — McCord and Kowalski surveyed hundreds of people about the advice they’d give their younger selves. What they learned is that if we just follow the advice we’d give to our past selves, we’ll be closer to our ideal selves.
The findings, published in The Journal of Social Psychology, show that people fixate on similar themes from their past. A few examples of participants’ advice: “Go to college,” “Be kind to yourself,” “Pay attention to the elderly,” “Learn to let go of regret,” “Be yourself,” “Don’t dwell on the past. Just because it was that way doesn’t mean it will be that way again,” and a classic, “Don’t marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.”
As you might expect, participants overwhelmingly wished to warn — or encourage, in some cases — their prior selves about relationships, education, and self-worth. Here’s where the study gets interesting: Participants who said they’d actually done what they would recommend to their younger selves (don’t marry her, go to college, do pay attention to the elderly, etc.) were also more likely to say they had become people their younger selves would admire.
It seems that many of our regrets, or at least our wishes for our younger selves, can be traced back to pivotal life events. Among the study participants, a huge number (more than 82 percent) said the advice they’d give their younger selves was influenced by a pivotal event in their lives. The pivotal events fell into categories like relationships, education, selfhood, direction and goals, and money and investment. These pivotal events dipped slightly in the “negative” direction, and participants were split almost 50/50 about whether they experienced regret about the pivotal event.
Researchers noticed that the advice offered reflected both missed opportunities that could still be recaptured and lost opportunities for which too much time had passed. One response, for instance, “Don’t run off to England and marry a stranger at the age of 23,” might be great advice if we could go back in time, but it’s probably not so useful to the person who wrote it down. They can’t change their marriage choices after the fact.
But not all hope is lost. Well over half of the participants in the study said they followed the advice that they’d give to their former selves, and even more said following their own advice now would bring them closer to becoming their ideal selves in the future.
Since this was the first-ever study on advice to a past self, Kowalski and McCord have a lot of ideas about what we could learn going forward. Most of it is about turning lemons into lemonade by learning how regret relates to positive things like hope, optimism, and well-being.
In the meantime, you can use their discoveries to improve your own well-being. Write down a list of advice you’d give to your past self and make a note of where that advice comes from. Then, go ahead and follow that advice. According to science, you’ll probably be happier for it.
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