Paul L. Caron

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Power Of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward

Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay:  ‘No Regrets’ Is No Way to Live, by Daniel H. Pink (Author, The Power Of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward (2022)):

Power of Regret“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. ...

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. ...

The research shows that by acknowledging past regrets we can avert future ones. ... 

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. ...
  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. ... By divulging regrets, we reduce some of their burden, which can clear the way for making sense of them. ... 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. ...
  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. ... 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.

For more on Daniel Pink, see The Three Keys to Faculty Performance (and Satisfaction): Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose

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