The Best Way to Handle Regret

By Toni Bernhard J.D. | November 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan


Living in the past rarely leads to happiness.




  • Try not to dwell on hopes and dreams that didn’t come true; ruminating on them leads to emotional suffering.
  • Instead, think of some minor disappointments that you can actually do something about.
  • Learn from behavior you regret, and then forgive yourself and move on with your life.


No one gets through life without a regret or two—or dozens! But it doesn’t serve us well to dwell on them. This post is about two kinds of regret. Here is the first one.


1. Regret over paths not taken and dreams not pursued


No one has all of their hopes and dreams come true.

I call these “if only” regrets. They become a source of emotional suffering when you tie your happiness to them by saying “If only I’d [fill in the blank], I’d be happy.” “If only I’d [fill in another blank] I’d be happy.”

You convince yourself that the paths not taken and the dreams not pursued are the reason you’re not 100 percent happy in life. But no one is always happy. As ad-man, Don Draper remarked on television’s Mad Men: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

The problem with regretting “if only’s,” is that you don’t know how those paths not taken and those dreams not pursued would have turned out. They could have led to disappointment or disaster. In my case, had I taken the path I’d dreamed of—studying and living in Europe for several years—I’d never have met my lifelong partner in love and friendship, and I’d never have had the two children and the two grandchildren who are my heart’s delight.

So reflect carefully on those paths not taken and those dreams not pursued and ask yourself if you’re sure they would have brought you the happiness you sought. After all, few things in life work out as you imagined they would. Unpredictability comes with the human condition. It would be wise for all of us to make peace with that fact.

It’s better to look at the life you have and see if you can do something about a few of your disappointments rather than live in the dream realm of those major “if only.”

Even doing something about seemingly minor disappointments can improve your quality of life—contacting an old friend because you’re feeling there’s not enough connection to people in your life; finding some new and interesting recipes to try because you’re bored in the kitchen; starting taking a walk every day—even a short one—because you think it would be helpful to get your body moving.

Only you know what these minor disappointments are in your life. I suggest you sit down and think about them for a while, jotting down those that come to mind and making a plan to change things. Changing a lot of little things can add up to big changes!



2. Regret that arises when you do something that might have hurt someone or that simply made you feel bad.


This kind of regret can feel emotionally painful. In my view, when an emotion feels painful—like guilt, for example—it rarely serves a useful purpose. That’s not to say this kind of regret can’t, initially, be useful because you may be able to learn from it. But having learned what there was to learn, it’s time to move on because guilt only makes you feel bad.

Here’s how I suggest handling this kind of regret. First, don’t blame yourself—forgive yourself for what you did. If you don’t forgive yourself, it’s hard to move forward. Next, see if you can learn from whatever you’re regretting by investigating it. By this I mean, think about it for a bit. Was it something you said? Or some unkind thought? When I talk about action I’m including thoughts, speech, and actual behavior. So, it could just be a thought—for example, rushing to judgment about someone. I used to do that a lot.

This kind of regret usually arises after you’ve acted out of either greed or anger—you want something and you don’t care who you hurt to get it, or you overreacted in anger at someone. So look for those two things. Were you being greedy or were you harboring ill will for someone else?

Once you can identify what you did that’s making you feel regret, resolve not to do it again. And if you find yourself doing it again, investigate what happened, and renew your resolve.

Everyone feels this second kind of regret at times. But if you get stuck on it, you’re living in the past. For me, life is too short to do that. Forgive yourself—why not? You’ve said something unskillful, or you snapped at someone, or you didn’t spend enough time with someone—just forgive yourself. Then resolve not to engage in that behavior again.

Having done that, forget about it. Move on. You can’t control the thoughts that pop into your mind. So, if you feel regret—you feel regret. Don’t make it worse by dwelling on it and assigning blame. Acknowledge it and move on.

One thing I feel certain of is that living in the past is the road to sadness and anger, not the road to happiness.