- The way I see it:
That awful and scary feeling that we all suffer in silence and we can't get rid of.
We regret in the present an action (or more properly an in-action) that happened in the past, and our inability to change it drags us downward to a spiral of guilt and self punishment. But I am coming here to say that regret is too, a useful and necessary emotion, and so defends Dan Pink in his new book The Power of Regret.
Because if we take a close look at our biggest regrets, we can figure out the things that matter most to us: "Regrets are lessons not yet learned. A lesson we need to internalize and put into action."
Why do we regret?
Because we fucking care. And that's a good thing as they provide meaning. If we stop seeing regret as an ever-present threat, but rather as a helpful reminder of what matters, it can be an opportunity to improve our life.
It’s impossible to avoid regret, Pink says. In fact, he argues, "regret is a distinguishing feature of humanity, since it involves an aptitude for narrative storytelling and mental time travel that only humans possess. We should embrace our regrets—and learn from them."
Keep reading if you want to get a better sense of what we all most regret. But as a spoiler I can tell you that the old saying is accurate: “we regret most of the things we did not do.”
In his latest book, Daniel Pink looks at what types of regret most haunt us—and comes away with some answers about what we most value.
Not too long ago, Daniel Pink, the bestselling social psychology author, made an observation that seemed to speak to our national mindset: There are more than 50 books in the U.S. Library of Congress with the title No Regrets. Living without regret, he felt, had become a uniquely American mantra. In his new book, The Power of Regret, Pink proceeds from that national obsession with positivity: “A good life has a singular focus (forward) and an unwavering valence (positive),” he writes. “Regret perturbs both. It is backward-looking and unpleasant—a toxin in the bloodstream of happiness.” But it’s impossible to avoid regret, Pink says. In fact, he argues, regret is a distinguishing feature of humanity, since it involves an aptitude for narrative storytelling and mental time travel that only humans possess. We should embrace our regrets—and learn from them.
In an attempt to better understand this most beguiling emotion, Pink conducted a survey, polling more than 16,000 people in 105 countries about the moments in life they’d come to regret. “When people tell you their regrets, they’re simultaneously telling you what they value,” Pink says. “So it’s this interesting thing where this chorus of 16,000 people are saying, ‘Hey, this is what a good life is.’” But living that good life requires taking a hard look at our past mistakes—thus going against society’s “No Regrets” dictum. Pink hopes his book can change the cultural conversation around regret and help readers recognize how looking backward can help us move forward.
GQ: Do you have a definition of regret, just so we know what we’re talking about?
Daniel Pink: It’s an emotion, and it’s negative. It’s a stomach-turning feeling when you look backward and you feel bad because of some decision you made, some action you took, or some action you didn’t take.
How is it different from guilt or disappointment?
Regret is your fault. Buffalo Bills fans are disappointed they didn’t beat the Kansas City Chiefs [in the NFL playoffs] a few weeks ago. But they can’t regret that, unless they were playing or coaching. Guilt is, in some ways, a subset of regret, particularly moral regrets. You did something wrong. And guilt is typically about actions—but there are more regrets about inactions than there are actions.
So what are the four core regrets?
Foundation, boldness, moral, and connection regrets. Foundation regrets are about stability. If only I’d done the work. If only I’d done the things that allow me to have some stability in my life. Boldness regrets are about meaning: I’m not going to be alive forever, when am I going to do something? If only I had taken the chance. You’re at a juncture in your life, you can play it safe, or you can take the chance. When people don’t take the chance, they often regret it. And even in follow-up interviews with people who took a chance and it didn’t work out, they’re generally okay on that. Because at least they did something. Connection regrets are all about love. We want people who we love and who love us. And moral regrets are partly about, In my limited time here, it’s important for me to be a decent human being, because part of what gives me a sense of meaning is that I am trustworthy, I am honest, I am a contributor. Those four core regrets are ultimately about meaning, purpose, and love.
You discuss how regret is largely about opportunity, and missed opportunities. Of course, some people have more opportunities than others. Does that affect the amount of regret they feel? Do people with more opportunities have more regrets?
I did this American Regret Project, a quantitative survey, where I was able to slice up the responses by demographics. So I could look at: Do men have different regrets than women? Do older people have different regrets than younger people? One of the things that surprised me, exactly on that point, was that people with greater degrees of formal education had more career regrets than people with less education. Which seems weird, because, especially in this country, if you have an advanced degree, you have a lot of different opportunities. But it was for the reason you’re saying: When they had more opportunities presented to themselves, there were more forgone opportunities, so they had more career regrets in that realm. Now, on the other hand, when people’s opportunities are thwarted, that also causes regret. But in some cases it verges a little bit more towards disappointment, because it was the circumstances that didn’t allow it.
Is the idea behind this book to teach us how to use our regret more wisely, or how to have less of it?
It’s both, because I think those things are twins. If you look back and confront your previous regrets—stare them in the eye rather than present this false bravado of “no regrets,” and don’t ignore them but don’t wallow on them—then you can create a life where in the future you have fewer regrets. You’ve learned the coping skills of dealing with negative emotions, and you have a better sense of what really matters and what doesn’t.
So let’s say that you have a regret about a lost connection. We have a lot of regrets about friendship and friendships drifting apart. It’s harder for people to process because the way that these relationships come apart is so profoundly undramatic. It’s not like you have a giant dust-up, and people are throwing plates at each other. It’s much more like you drift apart. If you feel that—“Ah, I regret losing touch with Bob and I should reach out, but it’s going to be awkward”—that is telling you something right there. There’s also the flip side. I’ve lost connection with some people over the years and I don’t really care. That’s cool. I don’t have to act on every loss.
How did “no regrets” come to be such an American ethos?
The United States was ground zero of the positive thinking movement, of Norman Vincent Peale [author of The Power of Positive Thinking] and that mid-fifties idea that you should look forward and be optimistic. There’s a lot of virtue in that, but we’re taking it way too far, this belief that a good life is uniformly positive, that you should banish negative thoughts, that you should never look backward. It’s wrongheaded philosophically, but it’s also wrongheaded scientifically. That’s not how our brains work. That’s not how humans function effectively.
How do we maximally take advantage of regret without getting trapped in rumination?
As gooey as this sounds, one of the most important things is treating yourself with kindness rather than contempt. We haven’t been taught how to deal with negative emotions. So we either ignore them or we lacerate ourselves. What we should be doing is finding the middle ground. At University of Texas, Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion says, treat yourself with kindness rather than contempt. Recognize that your missteps, your regrets, and your failures are part of the overall human condition. Recognize that any one action you took does not fully define your life. It’s just a moment in your life. There’s also a lot to be said for disclosure. This is why people want to talk about [their regrets]. It’s an unburdening, but it’s also sense-making.
What type of regrets came up again and again in your survey? Any surprises as to what didn’t come up?
Missing weddings and funerals came up a lot in these regrets, because they’re meaningful markers in people’s lives. They’re a way that we cement connection to other people. There was not a single regret about a travel inconvenience. Like, “Oh man, I shouldn’t have gone over there because I got stranded and…”—there’s not a single one of those. Purchases and buying stuff [rarely came up]. The only time it came up was when people squandered money over time: I spent too much money buying crap and I didn’t save any money. But you didn’t have anybody say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I bought a Toyota rather than a Honda.” We sometimes agonize over, “Should I buy this? Should I buy that?” There was almost nothing about that. Future me, the Dan of 2027, is not going to give a crap one way or another whether I bought a blue car or a gray car. But the Dan of 2027 is going to regret, you were in San Francisco and you have this friend who you haven’t talked to for a while and never reached out.
It feels like the big thesis is that negative emotions are scary, but instead of running away with them, we should engage with them and use them to learn.
Bingo. The trouble is nobody ever teaches us how to do that. If we do that, we’re going to end the bullshittery of “no regrets.” But I also think fewer people are going to get captured and brought down by negative emotions. We have not equipped people in this country, especially young people, to deal with negative emotions. That’s a huge problem. We’re seeing the consequences of it right now, with teenage depression and college students battling mental health challenges. It’s not because we’re broken people. It’s because we’ve been fed a bill of goods about endless positivity, not giving people the basic building blocks for how you deal with negative emotions and how they can actually clarify and improve your life.
Annie Duke, a former poker player who has written extensively about decision-making, has talked about the importance of distinguishing a bad decision from a bad outcome. Sometimes good decisions have bad outcomes—how do we make sure we aren’t letting our regret conflate the two?
That’s why you scrutinize the decision. In the book I write about a failure resume, which surfaces this idea. You list your failures, your setbacks, and your screw-ups. In a second column, list what you learned from it. When I did that myself, it proved Annie’s point. For a lot of the stuff, the lesson I learned was, “Okay, sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you have bad luck. Sometimes it’s just not going to happen.” There’s a relief in that. But there are things that are clearly screw-ups on my part and the failure resume isolates those.
This also goes back to regret and disappointment. If you only regret outcomes, then you’re really just disappointed. You’re looking at the external world. Because regret is so much about agency, you have to think about, Where do I have agency and where do I not? This ends up being a profoundly important thing that regret teaches us. The whole point of life is teasing out, What do we have control over and what do we not have control over? and dealing with the uncertainty of that. That is central to our development as sentient human beings who contribute to the world: Where do I have sovereignty? What is under my control?
Outside of the failure resume, are there other techniques that you like?
I like regret circles. You get five or six people together and you go around, everybody talks about their regret. We know disclosure is good. But then the others give you that distance and tell you, here’s the lesson you learn and next time here’s what you should do. That’s super healthy.
You’ve spent twenty years studying this human behavior—how would you succinctly sum up the most enduring lessons?
At their core, human beings seek love and meaning more than anything else. If you listen to people, when they tell you the stories and they tell you what matters, and you put it all together and you look at the research, I think what it says is that we are seeking a sense of meaning, purpose, and love. That is at the heart of so much of everything that we do. When it’s gone, we feel terrible. In its presence, we at least have the possibility to flourish.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
- Gq.com, by Clay Skipper,