Should we embrace our regrets?
My intuition on this question has always pushed me in the opposite direction. If there are any truly wasted emotions, regret and worry seem like good candidates — emotions that do little and also get you stuck in your own head. One looks to the past, the other to the future, and both are drags on the present.
Which is why a new book by the author Daniel Pink, called The Power of Regret, stopped me in my tracks. As the title implies, Pink makes the case for regret and argues that it’s not only useful but potentially the most valuable emotion we have.
I reached out to Pink for the latest episode of Vox Conversations to talk about what he learned from surveying close to 5,000 Americans on the subject and why he’s convinced that regret is such a positive force in human life. We also discuss what people tend to regret the most, the dangers of regretting too much, and how we can learn from our mistakes and then move on with our lives.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I’ve always thought the only two truly wasted emotions are regret and worry, mostly because they both seem impotent and inward-looking. Why is my intuition wrong here?
So here’s the thing: I don’t like feeling regret. You don’t like feeling regret, right? It’s a negative emotion. It disturbs us. It perturbs us. It makes us feel bad. And yet, we have research showing that it is one of the most common emotions that human beings experience. It’s arguably the most common negative emotion that human beings experience.
The question is, why is something so ubiquitous so unpleasant? And the answer is pretty obvious: It’s useful if we treat it right. The problem with regret is that we haven’t been treating it right. We have this instinctive view that it’s inherently harmful. It’s something to avoid, that we should always be positive. And that’s just flatly contradicted by 50 years of science.
This is something you bring up in the book, this discomfort with negative emotions in our society. We just don’t know what to do with them. Why is that?
It depends on what we mean by “society,” because there are different societies. Certain religious traditions have effective ways of dealing with negative emotions, including regret. Catholicism has confession and repentance. Judaism has a day set out in the calendar to atone for your sins.
I think that part of it is that we haven’t been instructed on how to deal with negative emotions. But here’s the thing: Positive emotions are good. We all want positive emotions. I want you to have positive emotions. But a life with only positive emotions is not a full and healthy life. We have negative emotions for a reason. And we can actually enlist them to lead a better life. We shouldn’t banish them. We should confront them.
I’m curious: Do we tend to regret the things we did or the things we didn’t do the most?
We looked for demographic differences and there weren’t very many. The one demographic difference, which was very clear, goes exactly to your point, and it’s a difference in age. When we are young, say in our 20s or so, Americans tend to have roughly equal numbers of action regrets (regrets about things they did) and inaction regrets (regrets about things they didn’t do). But as we enter our 30s and 40s and beyond, we start to have something like twice the number of inaction regrets.
Do you have a theory on why that is?
I have a guess. I think action regrets are more easily addressed. So for instance, I saw a lot of regrets about bullying somebody in school. This was a very common regret. If I have regrets about bullying somebody in school, I can go and make amends. I can go track someone down I haven’t seen in years and make amends. I can apologize and find some kind of resolution.
The other thing with action regrets is that we can take the sting out of them. We can imagine a counterfactual situation in which things turned out even worse than they did. I have a database of something like 20,000 regrets and to take one example, a lot of people (mostly women) said, “I really regret marrying that idiot, but at least I have these two great kids.” So we can take the sting out of the regret in that way. This is one reason why action regrets are more solvable.
It’s harder to do this with inaction regrets. That’s why they stick with people. But they are also, I think, essential elements of a life well-lived. We try stuff, we learn and grow, and we regret things we didn’t try. But these kinds of regrets linger because we can’t really address them.
Regret is at least potentially instructive, but wallowing seems deeply unhelpful. How do we know when we’ve crossed that line?
I don’t think there’s any way to measure a precise boundary here. We don’t have that kind of granularity. But I think we can interrupt the march from the discomfort of a negative emotion to outright wallowing.
There’s 20 years of research in a practice called self-compassion, which suggests that when you feel that tinge of negative emotion, [you should] treat yourself with kindness rather than contempt. Recognize that your mistakes are part of the human condition. You’re not that special. And recognize that any mistakes you make are a moment in your life, not the full definition of your life.
Where wallowing begins is when we say, “Oh my, I spent so much of my time in high school performing. I’m a complete loser. I’m the worst person in the world. I’m an idiot. Everybody thinks I’m an idiot.” That’s bad. That kind of self-talk is lacerating and unhealthy.
We sometimes over-index on our own specialness. Believe me, I can go into that database that I have of 20,000 regrets and tell you that you’re not that special, that there are a lot of people who have the same kinds of regrets that you have. It’s part of the human condition.
There’s also this question of guilt and whether it’s warranted or not. I know there are people who are inclined to blame themselves too quickly or feel guilty about things that they shouldn’t feel guilty about, and regret is bound up with these sorts of mistakes.
There’s a difference between regret and disappointment. Regret is our fault. Regret requires agency. Simply examining our regrets allows us to actually determine where we have agency and where we don’t, where it’s our fault and where it isn’t.
Let me give you an example of this from the regret database. I have this category of regret I call “foundation regrets.” This is people who say, “I spend too much and save too little. I smoked. I didn’t exercise enough. I didn’t work hard enough in school.” Now, at some level, you have to really analyze those.
So I have a guy who I wrote about in the book. He’s 43 years old. He doesn’t have a family. He started working when he was 18. He’s a very smart guy. He earned a good salary. He has no money to show for himself. That’s on him. He just wasted his money.
But if you show me a 35-year-old who says, “Oh my God, I’m 35 years old and I haven’t saved any money,” and I find out that she is the first person in her family to go to college, and that she had to borrow $150,000 to go to college, and that she’s actually supporting other members of her family, the fact that she doesn’t have savings is not on her. And I think that simply examining our regrets helps us make these distinctions.
This is one reason that I like this idea of a failure resume, where instead of listing your accomplishments and accolades, you list all of your screw-ups and failures and mistakes.
That sounds terrible, Dan.
It’s awesome! Just hear me out. Is it pleasant? No. Is it clarifying and instructive? Yes. And this is the problem, Sean: We want the clarification, we want the instruction, but we want it without the discomfort, and it doesn’t work that way. The discomfort is the source of the clarification and the instruction.
So I list all my failures and mistakes in one column. Then in the second column, I list what’s the lesson I learned from that. And then the third column, I list what I’m going to do about it. And what happens to people, what happens to me in certain circumstances, is that this thing that I have listed as a mistake or screw-up, when I try to extract a lesson from it, the lesson is that there is no lesson. The lesson is, shit happens. Things don’t work out. And at some level that’s a relief because it allows me to tease out what I am responsible for and what I’m not responsible for. And this is a fundamentally important question in leading a healthy, meaningful life.
One positive thing I’d say about regret is that because it’s private and inward, there’s nothing fundamentally performative about it. I think there are fewer incentives for deception, and if the main value of regret is that it’s a teacher, then that honesty seems like a very good thing.
I think it’s a great point. If regret becomes too performative, it loses its value. And we’re not anywhere close to that, believe me. But I think that’s right. I think there is an authenticity when you reckon with it inside yourself, but there’s also a distortion because we’re sometimes too hard on ourselves.
But I’m with you on some of the dangers of all of these performative aspects of our life. You see this a little bit in the bullshit job interview question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” That’s a purely performative question, right? “I work too hard and care too much. I’m too loyal to my boss. I’m too willing to work all night.” That’s not a legitimate question and those aren’t legitimate answers.
It’s a very interesting point, though, that when we reflect inward, we can be more authentic. We can be more honest with ourselves. But sometimes we have a distorted view of ourselves. The solution is pretty simple: Don’t do that. Treat yourself with the same amount of kindness and generosity and empathy and compassion that you would treat somebody else. Simply doing that is a way to actually have a clearer picture as you evaluate yourself. And it’s a way to begin this process of making sense of your regret, extracting a lesson from your regret, and applying that lesson going forward.