Monday, November 7, 2016

Dr. Faulkner: Regrets


Frank Sinatra famously crooned
Regrets, I've had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

What do you regret most in your life? 

A recent article in Inc. Magazine titled Science Says this is the Most Common Regret led me to an eleven year old article from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (September 2005, 31: 1273-1285) by Roese and Summerville.  The article titled What we Regret Most . . . and Why examines 11 previously published studies and conducts two additional studies exploring people’s biggest regrets and what affects the degree of regret.   Their conclusion was that “Americans’ biggest regrets fall into the following life domains (in descending order of frequency): education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure.”  Thirty-two percent of Americans have a significant regret regarding education.  That is 10 points higher than the second regretful area of career.

The authors also posit that, “Opportunity breeds regret.  Feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment are strongest where the chances for corrective reaction are clearest.”  Because education is so readily available in America, it is never too late to correct a past mistake.  Not taking advantage of the current opportunity compounds the regret for past action.

I don’t remember exactly who it was, but I distinctly remember a conversation I had when I was trying to make the decision to leave a very good job in order to return to finish my bachelor’s degree.  I’ve often repeat this exchange with potential adult students.  It goes something like this:
           
Counselor:  How long will it take you to finish your degree?
Me:  About two years.
Counselor:  And how old will you be when you finish your degree?
Me: Thirty –two.
Counselor:  And how old will you be in two years if you don’t pursue a degree?
Me:  Thirty-two.
Counselor:  And so you will be thirty-two and without a degree.

According to the hypothesis of the authors, I would be two years older and have twice as much regret.

Roese and Summerville conclude by offering three distinct stages at which opportunity affects regret.  “The three stages are action, outcome, and recall.”  In the action stage individuals engage in behaviors designed to achieve the desired outcome.  Regret is highest when it is clear that those actions have been freely chosen.  When the outcome is achieved, certainly positive outcomes rarely lead to regret but negative outcomes from freely chosen actions will evoke regret.  How the action and outcome is recalled also affects regret.

For our students, studying for a test is an action.  If the outcome of the test is good, they will recall the positive result and have little regret.  Too often what happens is if the outcome is negative, they try to shift the blame to indicate they did not have a freely chosen action.  (I had to work so I couldn’t study.)  And of course their recall of a situation is often skewed to try to assuage their regret.

We also need to keep these ideas in mind when counseling returning non-traditional students.  We should emphasize that their past action to not pursue education or to stop out doesn’t preclude them from correcting the action and having a positive outcome in the very near future.

So while career, and love life, and leisure may be areas of regret, education is one place where it is possible to correct the past and reduce regret.

-Dr. Jerry Faulkner

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