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HELP! I did something I regret!

Dear Armchair PsychologistHere's an ethical dilemma I have. My former roommate invited me to a lecture by a very successful illustrator at a museum. The illustrator did a painting as a demonstration and then offered it to anyone who had just had a birthday — this happened to be me. My friend got jealous that I received the painting, in part because he had invited me. Without him, I never would've gone. I thought about giving the painting to him, but I didn't. Many years later, he developed cancer, and I thought about giving it to him on his birthday, but I reasoned, "He may die in six months so what's the point of giving him the painting now?" He survived the cancer, went on to marry, have a family, and a successful career as an artist. Sadly, the cancer eventually returned and he passed away about five years ago. I still have the painting. What would you have done with the painting?- Monet-in-limbo

Dear Monet-in-limbo,

I am very sorry for the loss of your friend. I can imagine that it's difficult to grapple with the "what-ifs" and gestures you might have been able to do while he was still alive, to show your friend that you cared. If it's of any solace, you are ethically the rightful owner, and you were given the painting fair and square. Your friend got jealous, but you didn't behave immorally, nor did you slight your friend.

But I suspect you already know this, which is why you steadfastly held on to the painting. Bequeathing the painting to something, or someone, meaningful may be a great way to honor your friend, but it could also serve as a quick band-aid fix for a deeper problem. It seems the real question may be why you feel compounded with guilt or regret? Perhaps you were unable to properly say goodbye to your dying friend? Maybe you lost touch with each other?

Losing loved ones is very difficult for most people, and so are the lingering questions. When my lovely and fun college friend unexpectedly died at the hands of an abusive boyfriend, I went through immense regret at not checking in with her more often to ensure her safety.

If you're lucky to live a long life, the ventral striatum (the region in your brain that houses regret) shows that if you're a healthy person, then the older you get the easier it is to let go of regrets. Younger people struggle more with regret aka "what-ifs" or "counterfactual thinking" because they have longer to live and a greater chance for the option of a better outcome. In this study that measured the emotional reactions of athletes at the Olympics, it was determined that Olympians who won Bronze medals were happier than those who won Silver medals. This is because "the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal." In other words, if the options for a better outcome are available, regret (or counterfactual thinking) is increased because the brain will deem it beneficial for learning and changing the outcome. It seems that you believe there may be a better outcome for this painting's fate and I suggest you explore this, including your feelings of regret or grief, with a qualified therapist no less.

- The Armchair Psychologist

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Ubah Bulale