The one-sentence summary
Having ‘no regrets’ is nonsense and even dangerous, because looking backward moves us forward.
Can’t be bothered to read it? Too much screen time lately? Listen to the 5-minute podcast in two parts.
- Everybody has regrets. They’re a fundamental part of our lives. If we reckon with them in fresh and imaginative ways, we can enlist our regrets to make smarter decisions, perform better, and deepen our sense of meaning and purpose.
- The author set up his own World Regret Survey – the largest sampling of attitudes about regret ever conducted, covering more than 16,000 people in 105 countries.
- He identifies four core regrets. These operate as a ‘photographic negative’ of the good life. By understanding what people regret the most, we can understand what they value the most.
- Regret is not dangerous or abnormal. It is an integral part of being human. It clarifies and instructs. Don’t dodge emotions or ignore feelings but don’t wallow in them either. Confront them and use them as a catalyst for future behaviour. Feeling is for thinking.
- The four core regrets are:
- Foundation regrets: failure to be responsible, conscientious or prudent. (“If only I’d done the work.”) Need: stability.
- Boldness regrets: we are much more likely to regret the chances we didn’t take than the ones we did. (“If only I’d taken the risk.”) Need: growth.
- Moral regrets: morally dubious decisions can gnaw at us for ages, usually involving harm, cheating, disloyalty, subversion or desecration. (“If only I’d done the right thing.”) Need : goodness.
- Connection regrets: failure to start or keep up relationships (rifts and drifts). (“If only I’d made contact.”) Need: love.
- Two of our most important human qualities are time travelling and storytelling. We can think about the past and project into the future, and we can make up stories about what might have happened, or what might happen.
- These thoughts are called counterfactuals – we can concoct events that run counter to the actual facts. If Onlys form the basis of regret (If only I did/didn’t do x), but the same situation can be read as an At Least (At least I achieved x, or bad thing y didn’t happen). It’s a question of attitude. People succumb to If Onlys about 4 times more often than At Leasts. These degrade our feelings now but can improve our lives later.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.” William James. Thinking is for doing. We act in order to survive. We think in order to act.
- Temporal discounting involves people overvaluing the now and undervaluing (discounting) the later. They are likely to opt for gratification now, and/or put off what could have consequences in the future.
- Coulda shoulda sums up the If Only
- To cope with regrets, first try to undo them, typically by apologizing. Failing that, move your thinking from If Only to At Least.
- Use self-disclosure to relive your regret and relieve yourself of the regret pressure. Use self-compassion to normalize the regret and neutralize it. Most people are harder on themselves than they are on others. Use self-distancing to analyze the regret as dispassionately as you can and then come up with a strategy to deal with it.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- Not much. This has the usual blend of rigorous research, scores of examples and practical suggestions about what to do.