Tumultuous financial markets, like the ones we are experiencing now, create endless opportunities for regret. Investors can regret sinking funds into bitcoin or Netflix, for example, before their falls—or regret not investing in them before their rise.
“No regrets,” is the mantra that we often use to put such thoughts out of our minds. But in his new book The Power of Regret to be released on Feb. 1, Daniel H. Pink argues that “Regret makes us human. Regret makes us better.” (p. 14) Pink contends that engaging with regret allows you to “make better decisions, perform better at work and school, and bring greater meaning to your life.” (p. 13)
Regret might not be at the top of the list of topics you planned to spend time getting smarter about in 2022. But The Power of Regret is an instructive review of academic research—and Pink’s own surveys of people—that likely has applications to your life, workplace, and career. Along the way, Pink, of course, shares the story of a man who regrets getting a “No Regrets” tattoo.
Pink points to three benefits of regret:
- Regret can improve decisions. Studies have shown that when people think about what they regretted not doing in the past, they made better decisions later on.
- Regret can raise performance. Researchers have found that experiencing even vicarious regret “infused people’s subsequent deliberations with more strength, speed, and creativity.” (p. 47)
- Regret can deepen meaning. Examining regrets can help us clarify our life’s purpose and steer toward meaning.
Drawing on academic research and two surveys of thousands of individuals that he initiated, Pink identifies four core categories of regret:
- Foundation – These are regrets where we opt for short-term gains over long-term payoffs, like not studying hard enough in school or not saving enough money. They often amount to: “If only I’d done the work.”
- Boldness – These are regrets of inaction, such as not starting a business, asking a crush on a date, or going on trips. They often amount to: “If only I’d taken that risk.” Research suggests that people regret failures to act more deeply than actions they regret.
- Moral – These represent just 10% of regrets in Pink’s research, but they often hurt the most and last the longest. They involve taking what our conscience says is a wrong path, such as lying, stealing, or betraying or hurting someone. They often amount to: “If only I’d done the right thing.”
- Connection – These regrets stem from “relationships that have come undone or remain incomplete,” (p. 133) such as when friends lose touch with each other over years, or families have a falling out. They often amount to: “If only I’d reached out.”
Asked to describe one significant regret, nearly 22% of Americans cited a regret related to family, according to Pink’s research. Some 19% mentioned a regret related to a romantic partner. Education, career, and finance were the next most common areas.
Pink provides guidelines for harnessing regrets more productively, including:
- Undo it. Apologize or try to fix any damage.
- “At least” it. Think about how things could have turned out worse and appreciate that “at least” they didn’t.
- Practice self-disclosure. Writing or talking about a regret can help move it from a place of emotion to a place where you can analyze it. Research has shown that just writing about a regret can make abstract emotions more concrete and lighten the burden.
- Show self-compassion. “Self-compassion encourages us to take the middle road in handling negative emotions—not suppressing them, but not exaggerating or overidentifying with them either,” Pink writes. (p. 174) It’s treating ourselves with kindness as we might treat someone else who came to us with the same regret.
- Self-distance. This is about trying to put your regret in perspective, imagining someone else is confronting it, or you’re an objective third party trying to analyze it, or thinking about it from the perspective of 10 years from now.
Pink offers this summary of how the last three approaches relate: “Self-disclosure relieves the burden of carrying a regret, and self-compassion reframes the regret as a human imperfection rather than an incapacitating flaw, self-distancing helps you analyze and strategize—to examine the regret dispassionately without shame or rancor and to extract from it a lesson that can guide your future behavior.” (p. 178)
He suggests that you can use regrets in your decision making by trying to anticipate whether a choice might trigger one of the four core categories of regrets above. “If you are dealing with one of the four core regrets, project yourself to a specific point in the future and ask yourself which choice will most help you build a solid foundation, take a sensible risk, do the right thing, or connect with others,” Pink writes. (p. 205) If it doesn’t connect to one of those four, don’t agonize about your choice and move on, he counsels.
To be sure:
- Pink promises that “if we know what people regret the most, we can reverse the image to reveal what they value the most.” (p. 149) His answers to that wind up being disappointingly predictable: stability, growth, goodness, and love.
- Pink convincingly makes the case for the power of regrets—but, stepping back, you of course still want fewer rather than more regrets in your life.
- Pink’s admirable flair for the telling analogy or anecdote in a few instances comes off as a stretch, such as when he detours into the history of investment portfolio theory to make the simple point that people benefit from having both positive and negative emotions.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- A 2016 study in Sweden found that participants regretted about 30% of the decisions they had made the prior week.
- Researchers studying facial expressions of Olympic medalists in the aftermath of the events scored bronze medalists 7.1 on average on a 10-point happiness scale, with silver medalists a lower 4.8. They concluded that bronze winners felt relieved at least they weren’t fourth, while those earning silver regretted not getting gold.
- Junior scientists who just missed getting a prestigious grant later in their careers outperformed peers who had won the grant by a narrow margin. “The near miss likely prompted regret, which spurred reflection, which revised strategy, which improved performance,” Pink writes.
- Bullying was the most common harm-related moral regret in Pink’s surveys.
- As people get older they tend to have more regrets about family, and fewer about education, health, and career.
- Researchers have found that getting people to write or talk about their regrets in the second person (“you”) or third person (“she, him, they”) rather than the first person (“I”) provides great clarity and commitment to improving future behavior.
- “Regret is not dangerous or abnormal, a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable, It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.” (p. 8)
- “The consequences of actions are specific, concrete, and limited. The consequences of inaction are general, abstract, and unbounded. Inactions, by laying eggs under our skin, incubate endless speculation.” (p. 105)
- “The lesson is plain: Speak up. Ask him out. Take that trip. Start that business. Step off the train.” (p. 111)
- “There is something heartening about grown women and men waking up at night despairing over incidents decades earlier in their lives in which they hurt others, acted unfairly, or compromised the values of their community. It suggests that stamped somewhere in our DNA and buried deep in our souls is the desire to be good.” (p. 129)
- “If a relationship you care about has come undone, place the call. Make that visit. Say what you feel. Push past the awkwardness and reach out.” (p. 146)
The bottom line is that The Power of Regret is a catchy corrective to the “No regrets” mantra that’s popular in songs (e.g. “Non, Je ne regrette rien”) and tattoo parlors. It’s likely helpful for people who tend to be overly self-critical or ruminate unhealthily, by normalizing regrets and offering guidance for how to use them to our advantage.
Register for a free Feb. 2 virtual event with Pink and Wharton’s Adam Grant.