No Regrets

What is regret? ‘A feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do’, the dictionary tells us.

All of us have felt/feel/will feel regret. But few of us pause to think about it. Daniel Pink is one person who did. And came out with the book ‘The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward’ a New York Times bestseller, like four of his previous books.

Pink did a survey covering over 16,000 people from across more than 100 countries, and created a database of their top-most regrets.

And found a pattern. All regrets fell into one of four categories:

‘1. Foundation Regrets. These regrets stem from failures to be responsible, hard working, or prudent.  They are typically articulated as ‘If only I had done the work’ or ‘If only I had been a little more careful.’ Finance and health related regrets mainly fall in this category.

2. Boldness Regrets. The survey found that most people regret inaction–about double the number of people regret not taking action, rather than taking one. This is about the chances or opportunities that one missed taking. For instance, not taking that admission in a foreign university, not starting a business, not buying that dream house, or marrying a true love. These regrets sound like ‘If only I had taken that chance.’

3. Connection Regrets. These regrets happen when we don’t keep in touch or are on bad terms with people who matter to us, and make up the largest category. If the thought ‘If only I had reached out’ is on your mind, you are suffering this type of regret.

4. Moral Regrets. This category of regrets had the smallest number of responses but were probably the most painful to the person concerned. These regrets are about making the less ethical choice when faced with a decision. This is the type of regret when you agonize: ‘If only I had done the right thing.’’

I did try to think through my regrets, and can’t say I have been able to find one that is out of these four categories!

Pink also suggests some ways we can overcome these regrets, and as importantly, learn and build on them. Some of these suggestions include:

·      Apologize, try to make amends and repair the damage.

·      It is sometimes not too late, so take action now. For instance, if you regret that you did not pursue your passion for music in your youth, maybe it is not too late even now.

·      Find the silver lining, ie., try to think of how the situation may have turned out worse than the current situation.

·      Distance yourself—one has to let go of what is done and over and cannot be undone. No point in agonizing over it forever. We have to find ways to cut off.

·      Self-compassion, ie., not flogging oneself forever for something.

The most important thing however, is to consciously revisit one’s regrets and analyse them and use them as a basis when making significant decisions in the present and future. This can probably improve the quality of our decisions.

The survey of regrets is open, and one can both take the survey and visit the database. If anyone needs convincing on the commonality of the human experience, a browse through the database will do it!

And to end, a poem on regret by Robert Burns, which is profound lesson on how to live so we don’t regret the world we are passing on to the next generation:

To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal …

November 1785.


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