"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


“At least I’m not him”: comparing yourself to those worse off may improve health, coping

March 1, 2011
Courtesy of Concordia University
and World Science staff

Re­grets are eas­i­er to deal with when we re­flect on peo­ple who have it even worse, new re­search in­di­cates. 

And while that find­ing may be un­sur­pris­ing, here’s a more un­ex­pected one: that sim­ple, if perhaps churl­ish, cop­ing strat­e­gy can al­so boost health.

Pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin, the study “ex­am­ined how young­er and old­er adults cope with life re­grets,” said lead au­thor Is­a­belle Bau­er. “One com­mon cop­ing mech­an­ism was through so­cial com­par­isons, which can be both good and bad, de­pend­ing on wheth­er peo­ple think they can un­do their re­grets,” added Bau­er, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Sun­ny­brook Health Sci­ences Cen­tre, a hos­pi­tal in To­ron­to. “Gen­erally if peo­ple com­pare them­selves to those who are worse off, they’re go­ing to feel bet­ter… when they com­pare them­selves to peo­ple who are bet­ter off, it can make them feel worse.”

Study par­ti­ci­pants who used down­ward so­cial com­par­isons re­ported suffer­ing few­er cold symp­toms, the re­port added. Over­all, they re­ported a pos­i­tive ef­fect on their emo­tion­al well-be­ing over the months that fol­lowed.

“The emo­tion­al dis­tress of re­grets can trig­ger bi­o­log­i­cal dis­regula­t­ion of the hor­mone and im­mune sys­tems that makes peo­ple more vul­ner­a­ble to de­vel­op clin­i­cal health prob­lems – wheth­er a cold or oth­er po­ten­tially longer-term health prob­lems,” added Carsten Wrosch, a psy­chol­o­gist at Con­cor­dia Uni­vers­ity in Can­a­da and sen­ior au­thor of the stu­dy.

The study re­cruited 104 adults who com­plet­ed a sur­vey about their great­est re­grets, rang­ing from not spend­ing enough time with their family to hav­ing mar­ried the wrong per­son. Par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to re­port how the sev­er­ity of their own re­grets com­pared to those of oth­er peo­ple their age.

Con­tra­ry to some pre­vi­ous find­ings, age did­n’t de­ter­mine how ef­fectively peo­ple rec­on­ciled their life re­grets, the re­search­ers said. “The ef­fectiveness of cop­ing mech­an­isms de­pended more on an in­di­vid­u­al’s per­ceived abil­ity to change their life re­gret,” said Bau­er. “Mov­ing on and be­ing able to main­tain good emo­tion­al well-be­ing de­pends greatly on an in­di­vid­u­al’s op­por­tun­ity to cor­rect the cause of their re­grets.”

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Regrets are easier to deal with when we reflect on people who have it even worse, new research indicates. And while that finding may be unsurprising, here’s a more unexpected one: that simple coping strategy can also boost health. Published in the research journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the study has implications for both young and old, its authors say. It “examined how younger and older adults cope with life regrets,” said lead author Isabelle Bauer. “One common coping mechanism was through social comparisons, which can be both good and bad, depending on whether people think they can undo their regrets,” added Bauer, a psychologist at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a hospital in Toronto. “Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they’re going to feel better… when they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse.” Study participants who used downward social comparisons reported experiencing fewer cold symptoms, the report added. Overall, they reported a positive effect on their emotional well-being over the months that followed. “The emotional distress of regrets can trigger biological disregulation of the hormone and immune systems that makes people more vulnerable to develop clinical health problems – whether a cold or other potentially longer-term health problems,” added psychologist Carsten Wrosch, a psychologist at Concordia University in Canada and senior author of the study. The study recruited 104 adults of various ages who completed a survey about their greatest regrets, ranging from not spending enough time with their family to having married the wrong person. Participants were then asked to report how the severity of their own regrets compared to those of other people their age. Contrary to some previous findings, age didn’t determine how effectively people reconciled their life regrets. “The effectiveness of coping mechanisms depended more on an individual’s perceived ability to change their life regret than on their age,” said Bauer. “Moving on and being able to maintain good emotional well-being depends greatly on an individual’s opportunity to correct the cause of their regrets.”