“I wish I had pursued Bharatanatyam in my teens instead of rebelling against my mom’s wishes.”
“If I had studied harder in college, I too could have gone abroad like the rest of my friends.”
“Had I not broken up with Rashi so impulsively, we could have had a great partnership.”
Making mistakes is an integral part of what makes us human. Whether it’s a lost opportunity, a failed relationship or a poor career choice, most of us have experienced regret at some point or the other. Yet, many people believe that a life with “no regrets” is more desirable.
In his latest book, The Power of Regret, author Daniel Pink refutes the notion that regrets are to be avoided if we want to live a fulfilling life. On the contrary, Pink examines this panhuman emotion and exhorts us to harness it to better our lives and ourselves. Like other negative emotions, regret too can serve a useful purpose if it is used judiciously. While he acknowledges the importance of nurturing positive emotions for our well-being, he adds that we needn’t eliminate regret from our emotional landscapes as it can propel growth and elevate us.
Pink’s research is based on the American Regret Project which surveyed close to 5000 Americans and the World Regret Survey which involved collecting data from 16,000 people in over 100 countries. Pink also interviewed more than 100 people. Based on his research, Pink and his team gleaned interesting insights into this emotion.
When Americans were asked if and how often they look back on their lives wishing things had turned out differently, only 1% admitted to ‘never’ indulging in this behaviour. Around 43% confessed to experiencing regret ‘frequently’ or “all the time,” while another 39% indulged in it ‘occasionally.’
Human beings tend to experience regret, possibly more often than we admit, because we have the unique ability to engage in counterfactual thinking. Thus, when we reminisce about the past, not only can we recall and relive events in our mind’s eye, but we also tend to imagine “what if…” possibilities that “run counter to the actual facts.”
According to Pink, experiencing regret can confer at least three benefits to us. First, we make better decisions if we recall how we were stung by regret the last time we made a similar one. Our regret impels us to slow down instead of rushing headlong with impulsive decisions. We are more likely to gather necessary information and survey different options before zeroing-in on one.
Next, regret also pushes us to persevere longer, which greatly increases our chances of performing better. The pangs of regret we feel for giving up too soon on tennis may motivate us to stick with the game this time even though the going is not always smooth. Of course, Pink adds the caveat that regret serves a useful purpose as long as it doesn’t morph into rumination. Simply wallowing over a past failure over and over does not lead to later successes. In fact, overindulging in regret can trigger a host of mental health issues.
Third, Pink also avers that engaging in counterfactual thinking about significant events in our lives imbues them with “greater meaning.” Further, when this is combined with regret, it “deepens our sense of meaning.” However, we must be careful in how we frame regret. If we use regret to pinpoint character flaws in ourselves, we are unlikely to make forward progress. In contrast, if we frame our mistakes as being limited to particular circumstances, we can take measures to avoid erring the same way again. Accepting our foibles without judging ourselves harshly can lead to more salubrious outcomes.
He also argues that most regrets can be parsed into one of four categories. Foundation regrets, at their core, lament our lack of responsibility or perseverance typically in the realms of health, education and finance. Thus, people may kick themselves for investing unwisely, not hitting the gym regularly enough or failing to complete a Master’s degree. Boldness regrets encompass “chances we didn’t take,” whether it involved pursuing a romantic interest or quitting a stable job to found a start-up.
Moral regrets, in contrast, reflect poor decisions that prick our conscience like betraying a spouse, deceiving a business partner or being unduly aggressive with a junior colleague. Connection regrets involve a sense of loss over relationships that have gone astray or those that never bloomed in the first place. As relationships constitute the glue that makes us feel whole, we may feel a void that we neglected to nurture certain connections.
By tapping into the riches of regret, we may progress towards our goals while steering clear of the pitfalls of this complex and nuanced emotion.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com