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This Is How To Overcome Regret: 5 Secrets From Research

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no-regrets

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Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.

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There’s a study you may have heard about. Researchers showed subjects videos of Olympic athletes standing on the podium being awarded their medals. The subjects didn’t see the actual competition, and they didn’t know who got gold, silver or bronze. They just saw the athletes’ faces — and had to evaluate who looked the happiest.

Unsurprisingly, it turned out the ones with the biggest smiles were those who got gold. But the odd thing was, the winners of bronze medals were consistently voted as looking happier than those who got silver. Why?

Because the bronze winners were thinking “At least I got a medal.” And the ones who received silver were thinking, “GAHHHHHH! Why didn’t I get the gold medal? If only I’d trained harder.”

Oh, the feeling of regret…

Saying regret is “painful” is like saying the Grand Canyon is “kinda big.” True, but insufficient. These are full body memories. The kind of thoughts that leave welts. And the more you think about regret, the regrettier it gets. It’s an emotional debtor’s prison from which it seems there is no escape. (There’s a reason tattoo removal is a $100 million dollar business in the US alone.)

When asked, “How often do you look back on your life and wish you had done things differently?” — you know what people said?

From The Power of Regret:

Only 1 percent of our respondents said that they never engage in such behavior—and fewer than 17 percent do it rarely. Meanwhile, about 43 percent report doing it frequently or all the time. In all, a whopping 82 percent say that this activity is at least occasionally part of their lives, making Americans far more likely to experience regret than they are to floss their teeth.

All the data points to the ubiquity of regret. Children understand regret by age 6 and anticipate it by age 8. Researchers Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters wrote: “People’s cognitive machinery is preprogrammed for regret.”

So we’re all doomed? Of course not. (Seriously, don’t make me regret writing this.) Here’s the twist you’ve been waiting for…

In a 2008 study, psychologists asked people about negative emotions like anger, anxiety, boredom, disappointment, fear, guilt, jealousy, regret, and sadness. The one they experienced the most? Yup, regret. And which one did they value the most?

Once again, regret. Sound crazy to you? Or… maybe it’s relatable? Anyway, let me break the good news to you: that feeling that’s been wreaking mental carnage in your gray matter can actually be a very good thing.

Flash back to the Olympic medalists for a second. The bronze winners were happy because they thought “At least…” and the silver winners were sad because they thought “If only…” But what the research shows is that while “At least…” makes you feel better in the moment, it’s “If only…” that pushes you to make yourself better in the future. Regret can be a powerful helper if we know how to deal with it.

So how do we learn to deal with it? For goodness’ sake, don’t ask me. I’m still beating myself up about how I handled a bad date three years ago. That said, my friend Dan has some excellent insight on the subject.

Dan Pink is #1 New York Times bestselling author of Drive. I write about studies on this blog but for the subject of regret, Dan actually did his own study. He and a team of pros surveyed 4,489 Americans. And as if that wasn’t enough, they created a website that collected the thoughts of 16,000 more people globally. It’s the largest quantitative analysis of regret ever.

Digging deep into the data, Dan found the answers we need. It’s all revealed in his spirited new book, The Power of Regret.

Due to the pandemic, I doubt we’ll have much nostalgia for 2020 and 2021 — but we may have plenty of regrets. Time to fix that.

Let’s get to it…

 

Regret Redeemed

Obviously, excessive regret is a bad thing. Ruminating over mistakes leads to depression and anxiety. It’s like banging your head against a wall but with absolutely none of the benefits.

That said, the attitude of “no regrets” is dumb and wrong. This emotion is useful and necessary. Regret can be a stroke of genius. (Though, admittedly, at first it just feels like a stroke.) It has three big positives:

1) Regret improves your decision making.

Research shows the more we think about how we screwed up in the past, the more we do to improve in the future.

From The Power of Regret:

…in 2002, Adam Galinsky, now at Columbia University, and three other social psychologists studied negotiators who’d had their first offer accepted. They asked these negotiators to rate how much better they could have done if only they’d made a higher offer. The more they regretted their decision, the more time they spent preparing for a subsequent negotiation.

2) Regret boosts your performance.

Researchers had people try to solve a bunch of anagrams. Afterward, they told them they didn’t do that well on the test and deliberately induced regret. Some people were then told to think “At least…” while others were told to think “If only…” Take a guess how the “If only…” group reacted.

From The Power of Regret:

…on the next round, the regretful group solved more puzzles and stuck with the task longer than anyone else in the experiment.

3) Regret can deepen meaning in life.

When we reflect on the past and consider other possibilities it enriches our experiences and memories. This is how we grow and mature.

From The Power of Regret:

“Counterfactual reflection endows both major life experiences and relationships with greater meaning,” the Northwestern study concluded… Likewise, when people consider counterfactual alternatives to life events, they experience higher levels of religious feeling and a deeper sense of purpose than when they simply recount the facts of those events.

To be blunt: if you never look back at younger-you and realize, at times, you’ve been a moron, well, you’re probably still a moron. We wrote “Don’t ever change!” in each other’s yearbooks in high school, but sometimes we need to change. The ghost will not stop haunting the house until the debt has been paid.

A wise man once said, “The guilt means your work is not yet finished.” (Okay, fine, that’s actually a line from the TV show Daredevil but it’s still wise.)

Regrets are lessons not yet learned. If it helps, imagine Morgan Freeman saying that instead of me. Got his voice in your head? “Regrets are lessons not yet learned.”

A lesson you need to internalize and put into action.

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Regrets can be good but that doesn’t mean we want to increase them; they’re the consolation prize. You and I have many different kinds of regrets — a veritable tapas of anguish. But in his study, Dan found they almost always fall into four categories.

We’re going to look at the different types, learn how to avoid them, and then discover how to cope with the ones you already have.

So what’s the first type?

 

1) Foundation Regrets

Regrets that result from a failure to act responsibly. When we weren’t conscientious, prudent, or disciplined enough. We shirk in school, eschew exercise, or don’t work hard enough on the job. We opt for short-term pleasure instead of long-term gain. We all want dessert first.

Dan says foundation regrets often take the form of: “If I’d only done the work.”

When you hear yourself saying the words “too much” followed by “too little”, you’re probably dealing with a foundation regret. “I did too much spending and not enough saving.”

So what’s the lesson here? How do we prevent foundation regrets? Do the work. Take a future focus. Think a little less about what’s fun now and a little more about where you want to be in a year. And then do what it will take to get you there.

(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)

Okay, next regret. You’ll relate to this one. I sure do. Are you scared to read it?

Do not fear. Be bold…

 

2) Boldness Regrets

Boldness regrets sound like this: “If only I’d taken that risk…”

Inaction. Foregone opportunities. The chance we did not take. Dan found these regrets were pervasive in the arena of romance. They were also common when it came to career. We play it safe. We didn’t jump on that new job opportunity or start our own business.

The old saying is accurate, “We regret most the things we did not do.”

From The Power of Regret:

“Regrettable failures to act…have a longer half-life than regrettable actions,” Gilovich and Medvec wrote in one of their early studies. In my own American Regret Project survey, inaction regrets outnumbered action regrets by nearly two to one.

Doing something wrong sucks, but its limits are clear and defined. When you have to wonder “What if…?”, now your imagination is on the case. And that is unbounded. An unclosed loop that never stops poking you.

At the heart of boldness regrets is missing the opportunity for growth. For what could have been. We miss a shot at authenticity. To be who we want to be. We play it safe, and that means settling for less.

From The Power of Regret:

The most telling demonstration of this point came from several dozen people from all over the world who described their regret—their failure to be bold—with the same five words: “Not being true to myself.”

The lesson here should be pretty clear: be bold. Do that thing. Start that business. Ask that person out.

Don’t mess with boldness regrets. Bonnie Ware did an informal analysis of the biggest regrets people had on their deathbed. “Not living a life true to oneself” came in at number one.

Does that scare you? Good. Quit screwing around and write that novel.

(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)

You’re boldly continuing to read. Awesome. Do that thing.

But more than that, do the right thing…

 

3) Moral Regrets

You know the ones. You behave poorly, break the rules, lie, or betray. Moral regrets sound like: “If I’d only done the right thing…”

Dan found the most frequent type here was causing harm to others, like bullying. A close second was cheating others, including infidelity.

Moral regrets were the least common of the big four (don’t ask me to read into that) and only represented 10% of the total. But they were often the most painful.

The lesson here? Do the right thing. Make the decision you will be proud of in the future, no matter how tempting the immediate alternative.

Moral regrets can feel like a mental prison. The positive news? There is time off for good behavior.

(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you happy all the time, click here.)

Okay, last one. And it’s the biggest of them all…

 

4) Connection Regrets

We let friendships die – or never give them the chance to bloom. This was the most common of the big four regrets. Dan says connection regrets sound like this: “If only I’d reached out…”

I’ve mentioned the Grant Study numerous times on this blog. It’s that Harvard research project that followed a group of men from their 20’s through old age to see what makes for good lives. Dan quotes a summary of some of the findings.

From The Power of Regret:

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives… Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

And if that isn’t enough to kick you in the keister, I’m bringing up that study of the biggest deathbed regrets again. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” came in at number four.

It’s not hard to rekindle relationships at first. But often we wait too long. Feelings fade. People move on. And, eventually, people die. (Researchers have found this dramatically reduces how often they reply to your text messages.) If you do not reach out, there may never be another chance. The opportunity is lost forever. This is tragic. Terrifying. It’s…

Hold on, I need to text a few people…

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Oh, yeah, connection regrets. Anyway, the lesson here? Text them. Now. Why are you still reading this post? Come back to it later. Jeez, priorities, man! You’ve got important existential errands to take care of.

Call that person. You’ll feel better. They’ll feel better. Heck, I’ll feel better.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered the big four so we know how to avoid them. But what about the regrets you already have? There are some terrible things we feel we’ll just never get over. Lost friendships, ethical lapses, the death of Stringer Bell…

How do we cope?

 

Whaddya Gonna Do About It?

First, can you undo what caused the regret? Can you reach out, make it right or apologize? If so, stop doom-scrolling through your mental regret list and take action. As Dan says, there’s often a way to press Control+Z on your existential keyboard.

But sometimes there isn’t a way to fix the past. (Regret or no regret, I am not retaking the SAT’s.) In that case, there are three steps for coping: disclose, reframe, and extract a lesson.

1) Disclose

Dan calls it “relive and relieve.” Open up about it to someone you trust.

From The Power of Regret:

Such self-revelation is linked to reduced blood pressure, higher grades, better coping skills, and more. Indeed, Tamir and Mitchell maintain that “our species may have an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others.”

If talking about it seems too hard, writing can work wonders. Fire up Microsoft Word and give it 15 minutes for 4 consecutive days. Merely thinking about it often ends up as rumination, which just makes things worse. Writing helps you make sense of it. Seriously, the benefits are beyond mortal comprehension, and I recommend this to everyone. (For more on how to do it, click here.)

2) Reframe

The best way to do that is through self-compassion. Forgive yourself. Accept that you make mistakes.

If someone you love came to you with the same issue how would you react? Extend the same compassion to yourself that you normally reserve for others. (More on self-compassion here.)

3) Extract a lesson

You’ve talked or written about your regret. You’ve forgiven yourself. Now get some distance from it. Look at it from a 10,000-foot view. How much will this matter 10 years from now?

And then, look for the lesson. What can you learn? Move from “If only…” to “At least…” Find the silver lining in the pain. (I mean, that guy that killed Batman’s parents ended up doing a lot of good for Gotham City over the long haul if you think about it.)

Seriously, look for the upside. Dan regrets going to law school – but he met his wonderful wife there. Maybe you regret a marriage that didn’t work out — but it gave you some great kids.

We’re gonna need the Morgan Freeman voice again. Ready?

“What lesson did you learn?”

(To learn the best time to do anything, click here.)

Okay, time to round it all up. And we’ll learn the four things regret can teach us about living a better life in the future…

 

Sum Up

Here’s how to deal with regret:

  • Regret can be a good thing: A regret is a lesson you need to put into action to make yourself better. Your work is not yet finished, Daredevil.
  • Foundation regrets: Avoid them by doing the work.
  • Boldness regrets: Dodge them by taking that risk.
  • Moral regrets: Do the right thing, Spike Lee.
  • Connection regrets: Text them. Now.
  • How to cope: Can you undo it? If not: disclose, reframe, and extract a lesson.

Dan’s a super sharp guy. He also realized that if you flip our biggest regrets you can figure out the things that matter most to us. Foundation regrets mean we value stability. Boldness regrets mean we value growth. Moral regrets mean we value goodness. Connection regrets mean we value love.

Now there is a danger in living solely to avoid or minimize regret. We can play it too safe and miss opportunities. And trying to be an utter perfectionist about everything makes us miserable. (Can you imagine how hard it must be to shop for Martha Stewart’s birthday?)

Work diligently to avoid regrets related to the core four: stability, growth, goodness, and love. They’re important. But for lesser things, take it easy. You regret missing that Black Friday sale? You’ll live. Don’t drive yourself crazy. It’s the core four that make a good life.

Dan says, “Regret makes me human. Regret makes me better. Regret gives me hope.”

Don’t see regret as an ever-present threat. See it as a helpful reminder. An opportunity to improve your life. The pandemic has created regrets in all of us. Lost time, lost opportunities, lost connections. Now’s the time to fix them. Please put Dan’s tips into action.

You won’t regret it.

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