4 Kinds of Regret – and What They Teach You about Yourself | Daniel H. Pink | TED
Transcriber: Let's talk about regret. It is, to my mind, our most misunderstood emotion, and so I decided to spend a couple of years studying it. And one of the things that I did is I went back and I looked at about 50 years of social science on regret.
And here's what it tells you. I'll save you the trouble of reading a half century of social science. The research tells us that everybody has regrets, regrets make us human. Truly, the only people without regrets are five-year-olds, people with brain damage and sociopaths.
The rest of us, we have regrets, and if we treat our regrets right, and that's a big if, but there are ways to do it, regrets can actually make us better. They can improve our decision-making skills, improve our negotiation skills, make us better strategists, make us better problem solvers, enhance our sense of meaning if we treat them right. And the good news is that there's a systematic way to do that. But I want to take just a few minutes to tell you about another aspect of regret that I think is really, really just super interesting. As part of the research here, I decided to ask people for their regrets, and to my surprise, I ended up collecting about 16,000 regrets from people in 105 countries. It’s an extraordinary trove.
And what I realized when I went through this incredible database of human longing and aspiration is that around the world, and there's very little national difference here, people kept expressing the same four regrets. Around the world, there are the same four regrets that keep coming up over and over and over again. So what I want to do is just quickly tell you about these four core regrets, because I think they reveal something incredibly important and interesting. So the four core regrets that I'm going to cover. Number one, what I call foundation regrets. Foundation regrets.
These are people who regret things like this: not saving enough money, which would be like, you know, financial regret, not taking care of their health and not eating right, health regret. But they're the same. Those kinds of regrets are about making choices that didn't allow you to have some stability, a stable platform for their life. I have a lot of people who regret not working hard enough in school.
A lot of people who regret -- I got a lot of regrets about not saving money. And it reminds me a little bit of Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, where earlier in their life they acted like a grasshopper instead of the ant, and now it's catching up with them. So foundation regrets sound like this: "If only" -- And that's the catch phrase of regret, "if only" -- "If only I'd done the work." Second category.
I love this category, it's fascinating. Boldness regrets. I have hundreds of regrets around the world that go like this: “X years ago, there was a man/woman whom I really liked. I wanted to ask him/her out on a date, but I was too scared to do it and I've regretted it ever since." I also have hundreds of regrets by people who said: "Oh, I always wanted to start a business, but I never had the guts to do that." People who said: “Oh, I wish I’d spoken up more.
I wish I'd said something and asserted myself." These are, as I said before, what I call boldness regrets. And we get to a juncture in our life and we have a choice.
We can play it safe or we can take the chance. And what I found is overwhelmingly people regret not taking the chance. Even people who took the chance and it didn't work out don't really have many regrets about that. It's the people who didn't take the chance.
So this is boldness regrets. Boldness regrets sound like this: "If only I'd taken the chance." Third category.
Moral regrets. Very interesting, very interesting category. These are people who, again, a lot of these regrets begin at a juncture. You're at a juncture, you can do the right thing or you can do the wrong thing.
People do the wrong thing, and they regret it. I mean, one of the ones that really stuck with me, I'm going to try to pull it up here, is this one here, this woman. She's a 71-year-old woman in New Jersey. "When I was a kid, my mother would send me to a small local store for a few items.
I frequently would steal a candy bar when the grocer wasn't looking. That's bothered me for about 60 years." So 71-year-old woman in New Jersey, for 60 years, she's been bugged by this moral breach. So moral regrets.
We have people regretting bullying, we have people regretting marital infidelity. All kinds of things. Moral regrets sound like this, “If only I’d done the right thing.” And finally, our fourth category, or what I call connection regrets. Connection regrets are like this: You have a relationship or ought to have a relationship.
And it doesn't matter what the relationship is. Kids, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, colleagues, but you have a relationship or ought to have had a relationship, and the relationship comes apart. And what's interesting is that what these 16,000 people were telling me is that the way these relationships come apart is often not very dramatic, not very dramatic at all. They often come apart by drifting apart rather than through some kind of explosive rift.
And what happens is that people don't want to reach out because they say it’s going to be awkward to reach out, and the other side is not going to care. One of the lessons that I learned from this book for myself is always reach out. So that's what connection regrets are. "If only I'd reached out."
And so over and over and over again, we see these same regrets: Foundation regrets: “If only I’d done the work.” Boldness regrets: “If only I’d taken the chance.” Moral regrets: “If only I’d done the right thing.” And connection regrets: “If only I’d reached out.”
And when we look at these regrets, so that's interesting in itself, but what I realized is that these four core regrets operate as a kind of photographic negative of the good life. Because if we understand what people regret the most, we actually can understand what they value the most. And each of these regrets, to my mind, reveals something fundamental about humanity and about what we need. We need stability. Nobody wants to have an unstable life. We want a chance to learn and grow and do something.
We recognize that we are not here forever, and we want to do something and try something. And at least feel the exhilaration of being bold. Moral regrets, I think most of us, almost all of us want to do the right thing. At some level, these moral regrets are very heartening.
The idea that people are bugged for years, decades, by these moral breaches earlier in their life. I think most of us want to do the right thing. And then connection regrets. We want love, not love only in the romantic sense, but love in the broader sense of connection and relationship and affinity with other people.
And so in a weird way, this negative emotion of regret points the way to a good life. By studying regret, we know what constitutes a good life, a life of stability, a life where you have a chance to take a few risks, a life where you’re doing the right thing and a life where you have people who love you and whom you love. And so to me, I started out saying, “Oh, boy, is this book going to be a downer, studying regret?” And it ended up being very uplifting. And so, those are the four core regrets.
Regret points us to the good life. And so I hope that you'll begin to reckon with your own regrets because I think they're going to give you direction to a life well lived. Whitney Pennigton Rogers: Well, thank you for that, Dan I was clapping behind the scenes when you couldn't actually see me, for everyone who I know also really appreciated what you shared there. First, Dan, you mentioned, you know, this big takeaway about how thinking about regret can help us figure out what is the recipe for the good life. I guess what has been your biggest takeaway from doing this work beyond that? DHP: I found it really interesting how much people want to talk about this, and that's what got me on it in the first place.
That is, I had an experience in my life where one of my kids graduated from college, and that sort of marker in my life made me start thinking about what regrets that I had. And I just mentioned it to a few people, and I found them, like, leaning in to the conversation. So I was amazed at how much people want to talk about this and how much this taboo of like, “Oh, I don’t have any regrets,” is so ridiculous. I mean, it's absurd. And that if we actually start talking about it, we're going to be better off. For me personally, I think that the biggest takeaway was the ...
Was the connection regrets. Because I had so many people who had the same story where they had a friendship, some kind of relationship, and it comes apart, and they want to reach out and they say, "Oh no, it's going to be really awkward. And the other side's not going to care." And we're so wrong about that.
It's not awkward, and the other side almost always appreciates it. And so for me, I guess the takeaway is if I'm at a juncture in my life where I'm thinking, “Should I reach out or should I not reach out?” I've answered the question. That the answer to that question at that juncture, if you reach that juncture, the answer is, always reach out. You know, especially coming out a time like this, Whitney, we need that sense of of connection. And so the ethic of always reaching out, to me, is one of the best life lessons that I've learned. WPR: Well, we're going to do something a little interesting next, Dan, which is have some Members share their own regrets.
And so I want to, I guess, hand things over to you right now so that you can bring in our first Member and we can explore more what this process of thinking about making our regrets help us live the good life actually looks like. DHP: Sure, sure. And so let's bring on Lily. I don't want it to sound like a magic act, but Lily and I don't know each other. We haven't gone through this before, but what I want to try to do is actually, the hearing of the stories of people's regrets I think is super interesting and revealing. We’re going to hear Lily’s regret, and we're going to talk through what science says might be some appropriate responses to that.
So, Lily, welcome. Lily: Thank you, hi everyone. DHP: And tell us where you are. L: I'm currently in Brooklyn, New York. DHP: Brooklyn is in the house here at TED Membership.
So Lily, tell us you regret. L: Yeah. So my regret that I want to share is that for most of my young adult life from kindergarten, really, straight through high school is that I was painfully, painfully shy with really low self-confidence.
As I was thinking about this, I was remembering, and there were times where I just wanted to close my eyes and be invisible. And I think that, you know, my ... Like, I didn't really come into my own until I got to college, where I found a really great group of friends, really, like, I was confident in expressing myself and, you know, just being myself. And I think that, you know, my regret is that I just really wish I had taken a little bit more effort to build my confidence to fight this a little bit more, because I worry about what opportunities I might have missed. So ever since then, I feel like I try to counteract it now. And if ever I meet someone who might be going through, especially if they're younger, like going through the same thing I did, I try to make them feel seen and try to empathize with how they're feeling.
So that's kind of a takeaway, I guess, from that regret. DHP: But I mean, it sounds like ... So is this a regret that's still with you? L: I think ... DHP: It sounds to me like you might have sort of begun the process of resolving it a little bit. L: Absolutely. But I think that, you know, even just, you know, prepping for this, I start to think about like, you know, there could have been more things that I could have done if I had just put myself a little bit out there, if I didn't, just try to hide so much.
DHP: OK, alright. This is fascinating, Lily, and I have to say, I have this database of regrets. And you can search the database. And if I were to search the database for the phrase "speak up," "spoke up," "spoken up," I would get huge, huge numbers of of people. It is one of the most common regrets, is that people regret not speaking up.
The important thing about our regrets that comes from the science is this: it's how we deal with them. So we can take that regret and say, "You know what? It doesn’t matter that I feel terrible and I have this regret, because I'm just going to ignore it," right? That's like the blithe "no regrets" philosophy. That's a bad idea, alright? The other way at it is to say, "Oh my God, I have all these regrets, it's so terrible, I'm going to wallow in them."
That's a bad idea too. What we want to do, and I think that you've already done a really brilliant job of it is use these regrets as signals. Signals for our thinking; what is it teaching me? And so there are a few things in the research that give us some clues about what to do. So one of them is this. So we start with sort of, reframing the regret and how we think about it in ourselves.
So do you think that you are the only person with this kind of regret? L: I don't know. DHP: Not at all. I’m watching the chat, man.
Somebody said, “Lily, you’re telling my story.” So one of the things that we can do with our regret is treat ourselves with self-compassion, alright? Not boost our self-esteem, that's sometimes dangerous. Not rip ourselves down with self-criticism, but actually say, treat ourselves with kindness rather than contempt and recognize that what we're going through is part of the shared human experience. That's one thing.
The second thing that we can do is we can disclose our regret. And there are few things that are interesting about disclosure. There's something amazing why 16,000 people were willing to share their regrets with me. I mean, like, what's going on there, right? And the reason is that when we disclose our regrets, we relieve some of the burden.
That's one thing. The second thing that we do is that when we actually talk about our regrets, converting these kind of blobby mental abstractions into concrete words, whether it's spoken or writing, defangs them. It begins the sense-making process. And the other thing about disclosure, which is a dirty little secret that I'll reveal to all of you that comes out in the research very clearly, is that when we disclose our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses, people don't like us less, they actually like us more.
Because they empathize with us. They respect our courage. And the final thing is to actually try to extract a lesson from it, to use this regret.
So what would you say, Lily, is the lesson that you've learned from this regret? L: I think that ... What would have gone wrong if I ... DHP: That's interesting.
L: If I were more open about expressing myself, like, people might discover I'm a little weird, or they might think that maybe I'm nice and hopefully maybe a little funny. So I think, like, maybe that's one thing that jumps to mind. Like, what could have gone wrong? You know. DHP: So what's the lesson that you have applied going forward? Taking this regret, OK, so you've sort of treated yourself with kindness rather than contempt. You've disclosed it to all these people here.
You've begun the sense-making process by talking about it and writing about it. What's a lesson that you can extract from this? L: I think that ... I'm not sure. DHP: Well, then let me tell you. (Laughs) I think that the lesson is to ... Next time, speak up.
Next time, speak up. Next time when you are at a juncture, "Should I speak up or not," think about this. Think about this and speak up. Do you have any kind of work meetings or anything coming on where you're going to be confronted with this? L: Yeah, and I think that happens all the time. Like, you know, I have an idea. Oh, but someone starts talking, and then like, you just sort of fade back into the background, and that’s something I want to counteract more often.
Because, more often than not, you know that idea is a contribution, and why am I hesitating so much? DHP: Yeah. So you have a lesson. The lesson is, speak up. So why don't you -- So how about the next meeting you're in, when you have something to say, don't hesitate and speak up.
L: Done, I'll do it. DHP: OK, but here's the thing, what I like about this is you've just made a promise to 300 people. So you're on the hook. L: I'm on the hook.
DHP: So this is it. So, Lily has this regret. She's looking backwards, saying, "Oh, if only I'd spoken up," and instead of beating herself up, she is divulging it, she's extracting a lesson from it, and she's taking that and applying it to some next interaction. So this is what we do.
This is how, again, looking backward can move you forward. Lily, that's such a fantastic -- People in the chat are saying, "We will hold Lily accountable," which I love. So Lily, thanks for that. We're going to bring -- I really, really appreciate your sharing that with us, and I want you to report back that you did speak up.
L: I will, thank you. DHP: Thanks, Lily. WPR: Well, we have a question here from Claudia, who asks, "Can you speak to the issue of painful life regrets? Major opportunities lost? Do you have some advice on how to avoid being paralyzed by fear or further regret?" DHP: Yeah. It’s interesting that Claudia said “opportunities lost,” and let me pick up on that phrase right here.
Because one of the things I saw in my own research, because I also did a huge survey of the American population where we surveyed a representative sample of 4,489 Americans about regret and how it worked. But one of the things you see widespread is that there are, in the architecture of regret, there are often two kinds of regrets. One are regrets of action and one are regrets of inaction. Regrets about what we did. Regrets about what we didn't do. And overwhelmingly, inaction regrets predominate.
And that's what an opportunity lost is. With action regrets, we can try to undo them. We can make amends. We can look for the silver lining, and we can reduce the sting. For inaction regrets, it is harder. And so the key here on the opportunities lost is to think about, you know, really like, what are you going to do? You sort of reduce the level of abstraction and say, "What are you going to do next time?" Not an abstraction of like, "Oh, I'm going to be more bold."
It's like, what are you going to do next time? This is what we were talking about with Lily. What are you going to do next time? All regrets begin at the juncture. You can go this way or you can go that way.
And so for Claudia, I would say, the next time you're at this juncture, take the opportunity, play it safe. Stop, think about your regret, and make the decision there. Or another thing that you could do. I'll give you another, sort of, decision-making heuristic.
Two of them, in fact. When you're at that juncture, Claudia, next time, go forward five years. This is called self-distancing. Be Claudia five years from now, look back on Claudia today.
What decision do you want? What decision does Claudia of 2027 want Claudia of 2022 to make? It's very clear. Or the best decision-making heuristic there is: You're at a juncture, what would you tell your best friend to do? When you ask people that when they're trying to make a decision, say, “What would you tell your best friend to do?” Everybody always knows. So, I think that's it.
Remember, the main thing, though, is don't let it bog you down. Use it as a tool for thinking -- not as a tool for wallowing, not as a tool for ignoring -- but as a tool for thinking. WPR: A question from Kim, she's asking -- She says you're talking as if any bad decision or mistake is also a regret, and I'm not sure that that's always the case. Can you share your definition of regret? Especially after doing this project.
What is your definition? DHP: There's a difference between a regret and a mistake, alright? So you can make a mistake and not regret it because you say, you immediately learn something from it or it was a worthy mistake. A regret is something where you look backward at something that where you had control, where you had some agency ... Where you had some agency, you did something that, well, you did something wrong, and it sticks with you. It doesn't go away. And it sticks with you for a very long time.
So there's a big difference, for instance, between ... I can make a mistake and actually not regret it because it's not significant enough to me to linger, right? So that's the difference between a regret and a mistake. It's basically the duration, essentially, the half-life of the negative emotion. There's a huge difference between regret and disappointment.
Huge difference between regret and disappointment. Because with disappointment, you don't have any kind of control. The great example of that is from Janet Landman, a former professor at the University of Michigan who, to me, is like, she tells the story of like, OK, so a kid loses her third tooth. A seven-year-old loses her third tooth.
She loses her tooth, she goes to sleep, before she goes to sleep, she puts the tooth under the pillow. When she wakes up, the tooth is still there. The kid is disappointed, but the parents regret not leaving that -- So you have to have some agency and it has to have a ... It has to have enough significance that it stays with you.
And once again, going back to these four core regrets, it ends up being the same kinds of ... it ends up being the same kinds of things. If you said, "Oh, I shouldn't have bought that kind of car," it might sting for a little bit, but the half-life is very, very short. But other kinds of things stick with us and stick with us, and those are the things often of significance. WPR: Thank you so much, Dan, for chatting with us, and I love ending there, "If not now when?" And we'll see you soon. Thank you, Dan.
DHP: Thanks a lot, what a pleasure. [Get access to thought-provoking events you won't want to miss.] [Become a TED Member at ted.com/membership]