No Regrets?

In late 1960, famed French chanteuse Edith Piaf introduced the world to a signature song “Non, je ne regrette rien” (translated “No, I do not regret anything”). NYT best-selling author Daniel H. Pink takes this sentiment to task in The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Takes Us Forward.

regretRegret is a common human emotion. The World Regret Survey found that 82% of participants felt regret at least occasionally; only 1% said they never felt it. Regret relies upon our ability to travel back in time cognitively, reimage our pasts and a different unfolding of events, and take on blame for having acted or failing to act. Regret is overwhelmingly associated with an expectation of better outcomes.

Pink identifies four themes into which most of our regrets fall:

  • Foundation regrets reflect a failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent in a way that has jeopardized our life’s stability. Common foundation regrets revolve around education (e.g., “I should have gone to college.”), finances (“I should have saved more money.”), and health (“I should have taken better care of myself or gotten treatment sooner.”) They often arise because we overvalue now and undervalue later.
  • Boldness regrets entail a failure to act in a way that would have led to a richer life. They may erupt in a single moment (e.g., “If only I’d taken that chance.”) or be an accumulation of choices that unfolded over time (e.g., “If only I’d made choices to reflect who I truly am instead of what people expected me to be.”) Career, romance, travel, and adventure prove to be fertile ground for missed opportunities.
  • Moral regrets arise when we make choices that are out of alignment with our conscience (e.g., “If only I’d done the right thing.”) These regrets cause us the most grief and revolve around causing harm, cheating, being disloyal, subverting authority, and/or desecrating treasured values, persons, or institutions. They assault our sense of our own goodness.
  • Connection regrets occur because we have taken action (e.g., “If only I’d kept my big mouth shut.”) or left something undone (e.g., “If only I’d reached out and stayed in touch.”) that has  harmed relationship. While rifts are more dramatic, drifts are more common. Both prove problematic. According to Harvard’s long-standing Study of Adult Development, close relationships promote health and happiness far more than money or fame.

These four core regrets are the photo negative of the good life. When we know what people most regret, we can reverse the image and see what they most value. Studies show that we regret inaction more than action by a three-to-one margin. Inaction regrets increase with age.

Viewed properly, Pink argues that regret offers three important benefits:

  • They provide the impetus for making better decisions in the future and help us avoid “trap doors.”
  • We perform better today so as not to fall short this time. We are more attentive and persistent in our work.
  • When we think counterfactually about past events, we endow those moments with greater meaning because we know how the stories unfolded. We can use these reflections to course correct now.

We realize these benefits when we place regret in the proper context and avoid unproductive rumination. Here are three strategies to do just that:

  • Self-Disclosure: Name the regret aloud to yourself, in a written or audio journal, or to a close family member or friend. Denial is taxing and keeps you stuck in inaction. Putting it out there relieves that burden and gives us the means to organize and integrate our thoughts. It moves us from the realm of emotion to the realm of cognition. Feeling gives rise to thinking which gives rise to action.
  • Self-Compassion: Extend yourself the same care and attention that you would offer a dear friend. It doesn’t abrogate responsibility but offers a kind and protective means for confronting difficulties and moving forward.
  • Self-Distancing: Zoom out and look at the situation from the perspective of a detached observer and/or subject matter expert. Then analyze and strategize. This perspective strengthens thinking, enhances problem solving skills, and deepens wisdom. If the event or decision just occurred, one may fast forward 5 or 10 years in the future and consider strategies and options from that point of view.

Where possible, take action. As the Chinese proverb suggests: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” Seize upon what you can control and let the rest go. Find a redemptive narrative that allows for silver linings.