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‘No Regrets’ Is No Way To Live?


February 5, 2022

Hmmmm. Something to think about. From the WSJ.

My motto - regrets are ok; but don’t wallow in them.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Pink’s latest book, “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward,” which will be published by Riverhead Books on Feb. 1.

It’s tempting never to look back, but we’re hard-wired to focus on our mistakes. Rather than deny them, we can lift ourselves up by seeing them in a new light.

“No Regrets.” It’s an alluring motto, a handy recipe for success and satisfaction. Reject the pain of looking backward, revel in the pleasure of dreaming forward, and the good life will ensue.

Little wonder that this simple maxim transcends political and cultural divides. The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale —Christian, conservative, mentor to Republican presidents—urged his followers to drop the very word “regret” from their vocabularies. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg —Jewish, liberal, appointee of Democratic presidents—concurred. “Waste no time on…regret,” she counseled in her 2016 book, “My Own Words.” Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald recorded a song called “No Regrets” in 1968—as did country star Emmylou Harris in 1989 and rapper Eminem in 2020. Some people endorse this world view so deeply that they tattoo the two-word credo on their bodies.

Yet for all its intuitive appeal, the “No Regrets” approach is an unsustainable blueprint for living. At a time like ours—when teenagers are battling unprecedented mental-health challenges, adults are gripped by doubt over their financial future, and the cloud of an enduring pandemic casts uncertainty over all of our decisions—it is especially counterproductive.

For the last three years, I have examined several decades of research on the science of regret. At the same time, I have collected and analyzed more than 16,000 individual descriptions of regret from people in 105 countries who responded to my online survey invitation. One of them was Abby Henderson, a 30-year-old Arizonan, who wrote: “I regret not taking advantage of spending time with my grandparents as a child. I resented their presence in my home and their desire to connect with me, and now I’d do anything to get that time back.” Rather than shut out this regret or be hobbled by it, she altered her approach to her aging mother and father and began recording and compiling stories from their lives. “I don’t want to feel the way when my parents die that I felt about my grandparents of ‘What did I miss?’”

Regret hurts; it makes sense that we’d try to shut it out. But if it’s hard to take, it’s even harder to avoid

The conclusion from both the science and the survey is clear: Regret is not dangerous or abnormal. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Equally important, regret is valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.

Granted, regret feels awful. It is the stomach-churning sensation that the present would be better and the future brighter if only you hadn’t chosen so poorly, decided so wrongly or acted so stupidly in the past. Regret hurts; it makes sense that we’d try to shut it out.

But if regret is hard to take, it’s even harder to avoid. In 1984, Susan Shimanoff of San Francisco State University recorded the everyday conversations of a collection of undergraduates and married couples and tabulated the emotions that people expressed. Regret was the most common negative emotion—and the second most common emotion of any kind, after love. In a 2011 analysis of the attitudes and experiences of more than 300 Americans, Mike Morrison of the University of Western Ontario and Neal Roese of Northwestern University found that regrets were present in every domain of life, leading them to conclude that regret “constitutes an essential component of the human experience.”

Developmental psychologists have identified the ability to feel regret as a crucial stage in our cognitive maturation. Multiple researchers have shown that 5-year-olds barely understand the concept, but by age 7 to 8 young brains begin to acquire the strength and dexterity to perform the mental trapeze act that regret demands, and by adolescence it is usually fully formed. As the Dutch scholars Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters explain in a 2007 paper on the emotion’s regulatory purpose, “People’s cognitive machinery is preprogrammed for regret.”

A true inability to feel regret, on the other hand, is associated with lesions on a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. The same deficit is common among people with neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s and mental illness like schizophrenia.

So we cannot tattoo over our regrets. (In my survey, I even heard from someone who regretted his “No Regrets” tattoo and was removing it.) We’re hard-wired to experience them. And the reason for their ubiquity is their utility. Regret doesn’t just make us human; it can also make us better.

The research shows that by acknowledging past regrets we can avert future ones. In a 2008 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Keith Markman of Ohio University and his collaborators discovered that prompting participants to ponder their regrets after a problem-solving exercise enhanced their persistence, strategic thinking and performance on subsequent exercises. A 2021 Bentley University study published in the International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior showed that encouraging corporate executives to reflect on their regrets, rather than elide them, gave them greater “clarity of thought regarding their current business challenges.”

But these benefits are not guaranteed. To make our regrets work for us, we must respond systematically—neither dodging our negative feelings nor ruminating over them. I’ve discovered that the best form of reckoning involves three steps, progressing from reflecting inward to pushing ahead.

1. Reframe your regret.

It can be tempting to either soothe the wound of regret with self-esteem (“You’re awesome anyway!”) or bash ourselves with self-criticism (“You’re a worthless idiot!”). A better approach is “self-compassion,” a gooey name that rests on a solid foundation of research.

Pioneered by University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff, the idea of self-compassion begins by replacing facile denial or harsh judgment with basic kindness, similar to the support we’d offer a friend. Self-compassion doesn’t ignore our screw-ups. Instead, as Dr. Neff and two colleagues explained in a pair of papers published in the Journal of Personality Research in 2007, self-compassion emphasizes that “being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties is part of the shared human experience.” Subsequent research has supported that view. A 2019 meta-analysis of more than 94 peer-reviewed studies, published in Health Psychology Review, concluded that “self-compassion can promote better physical health.”

The effectiveness of self-compassion is especially evident with regret. In 2016, social psychologists Jia Wei Zhang, now at the University of Memphis, and Serena Chen of the University of California, Berkeley, asked several hundred participants to list their biggest regret. They directed some participants to write letters designed to validate their positive qualities and boost their self-esteem, and others to demonstrate understanding and show self-compassion.

The best strategy is not to plunge into your regret like a scuba diver but to zoom out from it like an oceanographer.

Dr. Wei and Dr. Chen found that people who addressed their regret with self-compassion were more likely to change their behavior.

“Self-compassion appears to orient people to embrace their regret,” and this willingness steered them around complacency and toward improvement, the researchers concluded.

To face a regret, then, consider questions such as: Is your regret something that other people might have endured, or are you the only person to have experienced it? Does it deserve kindness or contempt? Does the regret represent an unpleasant moment in your life, or does it fully define your life? Answering these questions will help to normalize and neutralize the regret.

2. Disclose your experience.

When I launched what I called the World Regret Survey, thousands of people responded by describing cheating on spouses, missing funerals, losing touch with friends and more, and I followed up by interviewing hundreds of them. “I regret not saving money diligently ever since I started working,” wrote Jason Drent, 43, who heads employee relations for a large apparel chain in Tennessee. “It’s nearly crushing every day to think about how hard I’ve worked over the last 25 years or so, but financially I have nothing to show for it.”

The responses underscore the second step in the regret-reckoning process: disclosure. By divulging regrets, we reduce some of their burden, which can clear the way for making sense of them. Mr. Drent, for his part, found that laying bare his regret helped him begin to get his finances in order and to counsel younger associates at his company. “I’m very transparent about being 43 and not having any money. I only wish more 43-year-olds had been more honest with me [when I was younger],” he said.

In a pair of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006, Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, and two colleagues found that writing about negative experiences or talking into a tape recorder about them for 15 minutes a day substantially increased people’s overall satisfaction and improved their well-being—in ways that merely thinking about those experiences did not.

The reason: Using language, whether written or spoken, forces us to organize and integrate our thoughts. Describing regrets to others converts those abstract, stomach-churning feelings into concrete, less fearsome words. Instead of those unpleasant emotions fluttering around uncontrollably, language helps us to capture them in our net, pin them down and begin analyzing them.

One misgiving many of us have about revealing our previous failures is that others will think poorly of us. But that is much less likely than we realize, behavioral scientists have been demonstrating for nearly 30 years. As Nancy Collins of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Lynn Carol Miller of the University of Southern California concluded in a major review of the literature for Psychological Bulletin, “people who engage in intimate disclosures tend to be liked more than people who disclose at lower levels.”

Still, if you’re squeamish about what others think of you, you needn’t disclose your regret to anybody but yourself. The work of social psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas since the 1990s has shown that merely writing about emotional difficulties, even for your own consumption, can be powerful in helping to make sense of events. “Translating important psychological events into words is uniquely human,” Dr. Pennebaker wrote in the journal Psychological Science 25 years ago. “The disclosure phenomenon appears to generalize across settings, most individual differences, and many Western cultures, and is independent of social feedback.”

So tell someone else about one of your regrets or just write about it privately. Perhaps even compile what Stanford University’s Tina Seelig calls a “failure resume”—a thorough inventory of your professional flops, flubs and foul-ups—that can help you avoid those blunders again. “The act of documenting your errors allows you to move on much more quickly, as opposed to dwelling on them, and results in a lower likelihood that you will repeat the same mistake,” Dr. Seelig says.

3. Extract a lesson.

The best strategy is not to plunge into your regret like a scuba diver but to zoom out from it like an oceanographer, a practice known as “self-distancing.” You may have noticed that you’re often better at solving other people’s problems than your own. Because you’re less enmeshed in others’ details than they are, you’re able to see the full picture in ways they cannot.

Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo in Canada have shown that when people step back and assess their own situation in the way that they would evaluate other people’s situations, they close this perceptual gap and more easily find solutions for themselves.

In a study published last year, Dr. Grossmann and several colleagues showed that getting people simply to discuss their challenges using third-person pronouns, rather than first-person pronouns, sharpened the way they reasoned through difficulties. Likewise, Dr. Kross and his University of Michigan colleagues Ariana Orvell and Susan Gelman have conducted experiments showing that when we deploy the “universal you” in describing our negative experiences—using “you” to mean people in general—we’re better able to pull meaning and guidance from them.

Distancing through time can also help us find lessons in regret. A 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that mentally visiting yourself in the future—and then examining distressing emotions retrospectively—can make a current problem seem smaller and provide clues on how to surmount it.

Amy Knobler, a 49-year-old Californian, used such a technique to contend with her submission to the World Regret Survey: “I deeply regret not reaching out to a childhood friend while she was fighting cancer. When I finally called her home, I learned she had passed away earlier that morning.” A few years later, Knobler learned that another childhood friend had been diagnosed with a similar disease. “I kept revisiting my previous experience,” she said, which offered guidance. She called this friend frequently. She visited her. They exchanged texts and emails. That friend also passed away. But this time Ms. Knobler maintained the connection. “It didn’t make it easier. But I don’t have regrets.”

So for the final step, move forward. Imagine your best friend is dealing with your same regret. What lesson does it teach? What would you advise doing next? Now follow your own advice. Or imagine that you are a neutral expert—say, a doctor of regret sciences—analyzing your regret in a clean, pristine examination room. What is your diagnosis? What is your prescription? Now write an email to yourself—using your first name and the pronoun “you”—outlining the lessons learned and the next steps to take. Or imagine it is 10 years from now and you’re gazing back with pride on how you learned and changed from this regret. What did you do?

Looking backward can move all of us forward, if we respond correctly. That demands thinking clearly about this indispensable emotion. In 1967, in an essay for the New York Review of Books, James Baldwin demonstrated that clarity when he wrote: “Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.”

More than a half-century later, as we start to emerge from a period that has forced many of us to face our own mortality, we are learning that regret can offer one of the clearest paths to a life well-lived.

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