Have you ever wondered if there’s a guide somewhere that can help us create a better life? It turns out that guide is within us—in the form of our regrets.
Daniel H. Pink, the author of best-selling books that examine behavior, business, creativity, and work, spent years researching human regret and released his findings in his book, “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.” Although looking backward may sound counterintuitive, according to Pink, it is not. This is because he found that regret is distinct from disappointment or sadness.
Different types of regret
Pink’s findings come from tens of thousands of stories from people surveyed worldwide. The key takeaway from the qualitative data is that more people have regrets of inaction, which only goes up as people age. On the flip side, “action” regrets can be undone, like marrying the wrong person. Furthermore, with action regrets, people can think of “at leasts.” For example, although marrying the wrong person is a source of regret, they can say that at least they got great kids from the marriage. With regrets of inaction, this is impossible.
Furthermore, Pink categorized the data under regrets of inaction into four types: boldness regrets, connection regrets, foundation regrets, and moral regrets.
People get foundation regrets from not doing the work and not laying the foundation for a more stable life. The actions that fall under this category include:
Not getting a certain degree.
Not taking better care of your health.
Not saving money for retirement.
Moral regrets are feeling regret for doing the wrong thing, such as bullying and marital infidelity.
If you’ve ever thought, “If only I’d reached out,” you may have connection regrets. According to Pink’s research, this is the largest category of regrets, and they are about relationships—romantic, family, friendships, etc. These regrets come about when people drift apart.
Lastly, boldness regrets are about not taking chances or opportunities, like studying abroad or leaving a dead-end job.
According to Pink, these regrets have lessons for us. Each of the categories mentioned above corresponds to a human need. For example, those with foundation regrets need stability in their lives, while those with moral regrets need goodness. Furthermore, people with connection regrets are reacting to the human need for love, while those with boldness regrets are responding to the human need for growth.
How to optimize regrets
In Pink’s book, he helps readers understand how not to waste regrets. Instead of striving to live a life without regrets, we need to maximize our regrets to live a fuller, thriving life. To do that, Pink suggests a three-part strategy: inward, outward, and forward.
First, look inward. Reframe how you think about regrets and, most importantly, practice self-compassion. More often than not, we speak hatefully to ourselves than to others.
Second, look outward. This means sharing or disclosing our thoughts regularly, whether writing them down on paper or sharing with a therapist. Sharing your thoughts and emotions is a form of unburdening, and talking and writing can help you make sense of things.
Lastly, extract a lesson from your regret to move forward.
If you find yourself deciding between two life choices one day, it’s best to imagine yourself ten years from now and see which option would future you prefer present you to make. Hopefully, this can help you make choices that you will be proud of in the future.
Although regrets don’t feel good, the bottom line is not to minimize them. Instead, optimize it by learning from it. There is no better way to create the life you want than by starting with the things you regret the most.