What the science of regret says about work–life balance and prioritizing close relationships.
Based on the research and insights of Neal J. Roese
For many on ambitious career paths, long hours—and maybe a relocation or two—are a given. And while those may be good choices, says Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, keep in mind that if your closest friendships are a casualty of your busy schedule, you will likely come to regret it.
Roese is a leading expert in the science of regret, how to avoid it, and how to use it to make choices that will bring you satisfaction in the long run.
“There’s a tendency to neglect one of the most important aspects of our well-being, which is our connection to others,” says Roese, author of the bookIf Only. “We’re finding that people frequently regret losing these personal connections.”
Nonromantic relationships are particularly susceptible to benign neglect. “We all understand that we need to invest in our relationship with our spouse or partner,” says Roese. “What might be not so obvious is that maintaining close friendships takes effort, too, and that the effort is worth it.”
So what can even the busiest among us do to keep our friends close and our life as regret-free as possible? Roese offers some research-backed strategies.
Know Thyself—and the Limits of Facebook
We all desire security, purpose, romance, partnership, and fulfilling work. Yet when these drives collide—the drive to search for fulfilling work versus, say, a desire to stay connected to the people already around us—we do not always choose what would ultimately have made us happiest.
“People aren’t necessary good at predicting their own emotional reactions to the outcomes of the choices they make,” Roese says. “In retrospect, however, they can see what mattered most.”
And what does matter most? While plenty of professionals have career- and education-related regrets, Roese’s own research finds that some of our most intense regrets have to do with losing touch with friends.
For Roese, this means people should work harder to maintain the relationships that mean the most to them—and not just by liking someone’s vacation photos on Facebook. “What we see is a longing for a close connection,” he says. “In the age of social media, we can call lots of people friends, but what people miss when they’ve lost it is a friend close enough to share intimate life details with. This is common with friendships that were important to people in their twenties and that fall away in their forties or fifties. People in their twenties might not realize how many life forces will push them away from their friends as they get older.”
Put In the Effort
One of the simplest ways to preserve a close friendship is to make a point of keeping it on your schedule.
“As people start getting caught up in work and family life, the first thing to go is the weekly or monthly beer you used to have with your friend,” Roese says.
This tends to be especially tricky for men. There is an interesting gender difference in the literature on how people keep friendships, Roese explains. Women are better at preserving one-on-one connections, known—to social psychologists, anyway—as dyads. “Dyadic connections are a specialty of women,” Roese says, “whereas men tend to be better at forming small groups, such as sports teams. Men need an extra nudge to preserve time for one-on-one friendships.”
“Regret hurts, and so our immediate reaction is often to ignore it. But you might also listen to the signal that’s inside that regret.”
Be Ambitious but Preserve What You Value
But preserving friendships does not necessarily mean limiting one’s ambition or refusing to chase opportunities that might disrupt one’s sense of community. In fact, the literature around regret suggests that risk-takers are rewarded with greater feelings of satisfaction.
“There’s plenty of research to show that when we have an opportunity and take it, we’re less likely to feel regretful, because we’re very good at reconciling ourselves to what unfolds. When we don’t take opportunities, however, we’re haunted by what might have been.”
So it certainly pays to take the opportunities that come along, even if they put you on a slightly itinerant path. The key is finding ways to make personal connections wherever you are, and preserving the ones you value most.
Roese recommends looking beyond workmates and colleagues. “If there’s a way to move to a new city and make friends outside your area of work, that can be more nourishing, in part because if something is going bad at work, you have someone who’s a more sympathetic ear for you. You can share intimate details without giving yourself away.”
“This is where social media really can help—it’s easier than ever to connect to people who share your interests and hobbies,” says Roese.
Reach Out for Needed Perspective
Roese also has advice for how we should rely on the close friendships we have managed to maintain. In addition to connection, he says, close friendships offer much needed perspective. As we reflect on our lives and our accomplishments, our friends can often see more clearly than we can the ways in which we have already succeeded.
“We don’t always do this well,” Roese says. “Too often, we immediately imagine the ideal—what’s the best possible outcome. But we stop there. We don’t take the time to pat ourselves on the back and feel a little bit better about all the great things we did.”
A classic example of this comes from another study by Victorica Medvec. In a paper published after the 1992 Olympic games, she and her coauthors evaluated photos of athletes on the victory podium and found that bronze-medal winners expressed more positive emotions than silver medalists.
“The bronze medalist compares downward and sees how easily they could have missed getting a medal at all, which made them better appreciate what they had actually achieved,” Roese says. “The silver medalist looks upward to missing out on the gold, and so feels a bit worse because of missing out on an ideal outcome ”
When reflecting on our past, and making decisions about the future, using close friends as clear-eyed sounding boards can prevent us from making choices we will later regret.
It’s Never Too Late
And for those who do drift away from their friends—it’s never too late to be in touch. One of Roese’s central insights is that regret is not simply a way to torture oneself on a sleepless night; it can also be an opportunity to change certain behaviors in a reasonable and targeted way.
“Regret hurts,” he says, “and so our immediate reaction is often to ignore it. But you might also listen to the signal that’s inside that regret, and the signal might represent a lesson, or a useful kernel of truth if you crack open the shell. There’s always time to change your behavior.”