Not too long ago, Daniel Pink, the bestselling social psychology author, made an observation that seemed to speak to our national mindset: There are more than 50 books in the U.S. Library of Congress with the title No Regrets. Living without regret, he felt, had become a uniquely American mantra. In his new book, The Power of Regret, Pink proceeds from that national obsession with positivity: “A good life has a singular focus (forward) and an unwavering valence (positive),” he writes. “Regret perturbs both. It is backward-looking and unpleasant—a toxin in the bloodstream of happiness.” But it’s impossible to avoid regret, Pink says. In fact, he argues, regret is a distinguishing feature of humanity, since it involves an aptitude for narrative storytelling and mental time travel that only humans possess. We should embrace our regrets—and learn from them.
In an attempt to better understand this most beguiling emotion, Pink conducted a survey, polling more than 16,000 people in 105 countries about the moments in life they’d come to regret. “When people tell you their regrets, they’re simultaneously telling you what they value,” Pink says. “So it’s this interesting thing where this chorus of 16,000 people are saying, ‘Hey, this is what a good life is.’” But living that good life requires taking a hard look at our past mistakes—thus going against society’s “No Regrets” dictum. Pink hopes his book can change the cultural conversation around regret and help readers recognize how looking backward can help us move forward.
GQ: Do you have a definition of regret, just so we know what we’re talking about?
Daniel Pink: It’s an emotion, and it’s negative. It’s a stomach-turning feeling when you look backward and you feel bad because of some decision you made, some action you took, or some action you didn’t take.
How is it different from guilt or disappointment?
Regret is your fault. Buffalo Bills fans are disappointed they didn’t beat the Kansas City Chiefs [in the NFL playoffs] a few weeks ago. But they can’t regret that, unless they were playing or coaching. Guilt is, in some ways, a subset of regret, particularly moral regrets. You did something wrong. And guilt is typically about actions—but there are more regrets about inactions than there are actions.
So what are the four core regrets?
Foundation, boldness, moral, and connection regrets. Foundation regrets are about stability. If only I’d done the work. If only I’d done the things that allow me to have some stability in my life. Boldness regrets are about meaning: I’m not going to be alive forever, when am I going to do something? If only I had taken the chance. You’re at a juncture in your life, you can play it safe, or you can take the chance. When people don’t take the chance, they often regret it. And even in follow-up interviews with people who took a chance and it didn’t work out, they’re generally okay on that. Because at least they did something. Connection regrets are all about love. We want people who we love and who love us. And moral regrets are partly about, In my limited time here, it’s important for me to be a decent human being, because part of what gives me a sense of meaning is that I am trustworthy, I am honest, I am a contributor. Those four core regrets are ultimately about meaning, purpose, and love.