On the surface, a life of no regrets sounds like an empowering way to live. Why dwell in the past when you can’t change it? However, focusing only the positive things you’ve done can be limiting. In fact, regret can help you create a better life, says Daniel H. Pink, author of the new book The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.
“Regret is a negative emotion, and the real question is, ‘how do we treat negative emotions?” he says. “We can ignore them. That’s a bad idea. We can wallow in them. That’s a bad idea. What we should do is confront them. If we confront our regrets and approach them in a systematic way, they can actually be a powerful engine for forward progress.”
Pink’s interest in regret came after attending his daughter’s college graduation. “I start thinking about my own college experience and some of the regrets that I had, especially about not being kind enough, not working hard enough, and not taking risks,” he shares. “I started very sheepishly talking about it and found that instead of recoiling from this topic, people leaned in.”
In his research for the book, Pink collected 16,000 regrets from people in 105 countries. He found that people around the world had the same types of regrets. “I was surprised by how universal the regrets were,” says Pink. “There was relatively little difference based on nationality, age, or other demographic features.”
Themes fell into these four areas:
- Foundation regrets that involve a failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent
- Boldness regrets about not taking chances
- Moral regrets over behaving poorly or compromising belief systems
- Connection regrets about fractured or unrealized relationships
“These four regrets give us a window into what makes life worth living,” says Pink. “People are much more likely to regret what they didn’t do than what they did do and that’s particularly true as people age.”
In fact, the Great Resignation could be people acting on regrets, since death or the specter of death is often a forcing function of decisions, says Pink. “For the past two years, more people are forced to reckon with their mortality, maybe not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly when we think about how many deaths there are each day from COVID-19,” he says. “It’s forcing people to reflect and understand that they’re not going to be here forever. In many ways, the Great Resignation is a great reckoning with what makes life worth living.”
How to Use Regret for Good
The first step is to understand that everyone has regrets. But rather than ignoring or wallowing in regret, use it as a signal.
“Regret is ubiquitous,” says Pink. “It is functional and part of the human experience. It exists for a reason. If we are awake to the reason—that regret instructs—we can use this negative emotion as a positive force that instructs and clarifies and leads us in positive directions if we treat it right.”
After you identify your regret, Pink says there are three steps you can take. The first is to reframe the regret. “A lot of times when we have a regret, we try to bypass it by saying, ‘Well, I’m awesome anyway,’ pumping up our self-esteem,” he says. “Other times we just lacerate ourselves with self-criticism. The better approach is self-compassion, where we treat ourselves with the same kindness that we’d treat somebody else. Recognize that regret is part of the human condition and not a weakness.”
The second way to approach regret is to talk about it. “Talking and writing about our regret takes this abstract negative emotion and converts it into specific concrete words that help us make sense of it,” says Pink. “Divulging them reduces some of the burden. When we disclose our vulnerabilities, we often fear that people will think less of us. In fact, the research shows that disclosure often makes people like us more because they admire our courage and can empathize with us.”
The final and most important step is to extract a lesson from regret. “Don’t just leave it there,” says Pink. “Ask yourself, ‘What lesson did this teach me? What would I want to have done differently based on what I’ve learned here?’ Then take that lesson and apply it to the next juncture and maybe go a different direction.”
Looking back at our decisions—both actions and inactions—is important. Shrugging them off can lead to delusion, says Pink.
“What we want to do is use this very common negative emotion that is part of our cognitive machinery and say, ‘If it’s conveying information, I better be receptive to the information,'” he says. “Then take that information and apply it to your future behavior. The evidence is overwhelming; if we treat our regrets systematically, we’re going to lead better lives.”