Kiersten Essenpreis for NPR
Instead of the all-too-familiar notion of living a life with no regrets, what if we embraced them? What if we used the past as a guide for better living?
That’s what author Daniel H. Pink asks us to consider, after spending years researching human regret — an emotion distinct from sadness or disappointment because of the agency involved in it.
A journalist and author of several non-fiction books, including The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us ForwardPink got curious about regret and decided to compile data on it in a qualitative way — he surveyed regret all over the world, asking anyone to write in with their regrets, ultimately receiving tens of thousands of stories and missives with which he could compile, classify, analyze and recognize patterns.
People regret not taking action
A key takeaway, he found, was that regrets of inaction outnumber regrets of action 2:1, and it goes up as people age. That’s because “action” regrets, like marrying the wrong person, can be undone, and you can think about them in terms of “at least.” For example, many people who felt they married the wrong person would say, “At least I have these great kids.” With regrets of inaction, that’s impossible.
“One of the big categories of regrets that you see are boldness regrets. If only I’d taken the chance. If only I’d asked out that person on a date. If only I traveled. If only I’d spoken up. If only I’d launched a business. We should have a bias for action because we overstate the amount of risk and difficulty sometimes. What’s more, I think … we plan too much and act too little. Sometimes we don’t realize that action is a form of knowing. That we can figure stuff out by doing it,” Pink said.
Boldness regrets are common, but they’re not the only type.
Pink’s data showed regrets tend to cluster into four different types:
Foundation regrets: These are the regrets from not “doing the work.” Not laying the foundation for a more stable, less precarious life. Things like, not saving money for retirement. Not getting a certain degree, not exercising and eating right to take good care of your body.
Moral regrets: Regrets in which you did the wrong thing. Bullying is an example, or choices of unkindness. “I was stunned by how many people regretted bullying people younger in their life, and marital infidelity,” Pink said.
Connection regrets: “If only I’d reached out,” is the telltale sign of a connection regret. It is the largest category of regrets, and they are about relationships — family, friendships, romantic and beyond. These regrets come about when people drift apart, but neither tries to connect for fear it’s awkward. Reaching out, Pink says, is “very rarely as awkward as people think, and it’s almost always well-received.”
Boldness regrets: Boldness regrets are about a chance that wasn’t taken. Things like opportunities to study abroad or leaving a dead-end job, but for whatever reason, you chose to play it safe.
These four types of regrets revealed what humans value, Pink says. They have something to teach us. Pink uses the example of photographic negatives to explain how each of the most common regret types reveal, in their inverse, a deep human need. The human need for growth is linked to boldness regrets, for example. With moral regrets, the need is goodness. With foundation regrets, it’s stability. And with connection regrets, the human need is love.
“Looking back can help us moving forward, but only if we do it right,” he writes.
Doing Regret Right
So if we’re not living a life without regrets, but instead maximizing our regrets to live a fuller, more flourishing life, how do we actually do that? Pink suggests a three-part strategy: inward, outward and forward.
1. Look forward: Reframe how we think about our regrets. We speak to ourselves more cruelly than we’d speak to anyone else. Practice self-compassion.
2. Look outward: Practicedisclosure. Sharing your emotions is a form of unburdening. We can make sense of regret through talking or writing.
3.Move forward: Extract a lesson from your regret. You need to create distance to help yourself process. Some ideas:
- Talk to yourself in the third person. “What should Dan do?”
- Imagine making a phone call to yourself in 10 years. Ask yourself about your choice, “Should I buy a blue car or a green car?” You’ll quickly see that the future you doesn’t care. “Should I go to this funeral or reach out to a friend?” You’ll see that the you of 2032 will be bugged by the fact that you didn’t do those things.
- Ask yourself: what would I tell my best friend to do? People always know.
Exercises to help you “optimize” regret
“Our goal should not be to minimize regret. It should be to optimize it,” Pink writes. So in addition to the “inward, outward, forward” system, he also offers some fun, practical ways to work regrets into living more fully.
For example, we all have resumes full of our accomplishments. What about a failure resume? This is an idea he credits to Tina Seeling. It’s a way to metabolize our past missteps by putting them in writing.
Gold combining our annual New Year’s Resolutions with last year’s regretsso that the feeling of regret can be used for thinking and reflection, and that reflection can then power action.
Because a relentless drive forward, a relentless posture of happiness, does not make for a full life. “Americans have been sold a bill of goods that we should be positive all the time, that we should always look forward,” Pink says. “There’s a reason we experience negative emotions. They’re useful if we treat them right. Regret, you don’t want to wallow in it. You don’t want to ruminate over it. But if you think of it as a signal , as information, as a knock at the door, it is a powerfully transformative emotion.”
Looking backward can point us to a fuller, more meaningful life.
Elise Hu is the host of TED Talks Daily.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.
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