You may have seen the photo of the tattoo across the man’s chest declaring “No Ragrets.” Among the many comments people made, my favorite came from the person who said, “Really? Not even one? ” Unlike this victim of lousy spelling, most of us carry more regrets than we deserve. Living a life free of regrets doesn’t mean you are wise, however. Sociopaths seldom have regrets, and that is why they are dangerous. People’s greatest regrets center around what they value the most. If we learn from our regrets, those regrets can help us “work smarter and live better.”
In his book, The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink reports the results of research that sampled over 16,000 people in 105 countries. Regrets occur when we think that we have done something we shouldn’t have or that we have not done something we should have. Whether because of moral or mental lapse, a majority of regrets stem from our treatment of others or our failure to act boldly enough. We all have a deep structure around the “right” way to live. When we stray from our deepest beliefs and values, we create regrets. Regretful feelings over not doing something we wish we had done can occupy our minds for years. The old saying, “hindsight is 20/20” applies here. It is much easier to see what we should have done in the past than what we should do in the future.
We often make a fundamental attribution error around the actions we regret. This error occurs because we attribute our actions to factors beyond our control. If someone else does the same thing, we will blame it on a fault of their character. I am not suggesting that we be harder on ourselves, but that we will be gentler on others.
The Four Regrets.
Foundation Regrets are what Pink describes as failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent. I call these the “shoulda, woulda, coulda ‘regrets. Leaving school before we should, overspending, or adopting unhealthy habits are how these regrets can come to be. These actions can rock the foundation of a successful life. I know well-compensated people, earning over $ 130,000 a year, who spend every bit of it (sometimes even more). If they were to lose their job or be unable to work, it would be a ticket to the land of foundational regrets.
I have talked to people in their 50s and 60s who regret not furthering their education. When someone speaks of education, training, or career in terms of, “I wish I had ….,” they are expressing foundation regret. One of the most frequent regrets I hear is about failure to pursue opportunities for further education. This occurs even though many who go to college know a college degree holds no guarantee for success. It can open certain doors, but so can hard work or the right connections. Addiction, or the failure to take care of one’s physical or mental illnesses also cause of foundational regrets. Personal responsibility distinguishes regret from disappointment. As labor leader Arnold Zack wrote, “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Disappointments occur from circumstances outside of your control regret occurs within our control.
Boldness Regrets are much more likely to arise because we regret the chances we didn’t take more than those we did. This regret occurs when we fail to act when bold action is appropriate. When we say no to a great career opportunity, or fail to pursue a relationship that holds promise, we experience boldness regret. The language of this regret is “If only I had….” These regrets often lie in our fear of what others might think or do. ‘If only’ has a long lifespan. Elderly people have shared with me regrets they have carried their entire lives. I can remember the sting of boldness regrets as a child. In eighth grade I declared, “I’d rather live with the regret of having done something I shouldn’t, than with the regret of not doing something I should or could have.” As Tallulah Bankhead said, “If I had to live my life again, I would make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
Moral Regrets occur when we compromise our own beliefs of right and wrong. We believe we are good people, and cheating on a test, lying to someone important to us, or defrauding a business partner to go against that belief. Infidelity also falls under the category of moral regrets. We may rationalize our behavior, but will still feel guilt, frustration, even desperation. When we compromise our values, whether in education, at work, or in our love lives, it haunts us. The resulting regret can destroy what we treasure and last a lifetime.
Certain universal values are at the core of regret. Because we believe that children are vulnerable, we devote considerable time and energy to caring for and protecting them. As a society, our morality dictates people who protect children are good, and those who harm them are bad. The same is true of the elderly, though it is less universal. Pink identified the five sins of moral regret from interviews with over 4,600 people in the Regret Project. They are infidelity, deceit, theft, betrayal, and sacrilege. When we are young, our moral framework is not yet fixed. The belief that it is wrong to hurt others is there, but anger, fear, or self-awareness can cause us to hurt them anyway. People often report feeling guilty for transgressions they committed as youngsters. They confess that they wish they could make amends to those they harmed in their younger days. Regrets can make us more trustworthy and empathetic. They increase our awareness of how our behavior affects others. Worldwide, the most common moral regret people admit to is infidelity. Our moral compass, it seems, functions poorly during times of desire
Connection Regrets originate from broken or unrealized relationships. These connections may be with family, friends, colleagues, and lovers. Connection regrets stem from things we have done or failed to do within relationships. As we marry, start our families, or grow busy caring for loved ones, we have less time for other relationships. Broken connections are common as we move from high school to college and out into the world. Our lives change, physical or emotional distance between parents and children, siblings, or friends occur. Failure to mend broken relationships before it is too late can cause deep regret. Tending to your relationships is as important to your health as taking care of your body. We must stay connected to people who are important to us and protect ourselves from those who might harm us. For the last thirty-five years, George Vaillant MD of Harvard has led the most extensive study of human behavior. The study is charting the lives of 824 men and women for over 60 years. What has he learned? “Happiness is love,” he says. “What gives our life satisfaction and significance is meaningful relationships.” If those are not present in your biological family, we must cultivate them elsewhere.
Humans believe that we have free will (85%), and that things happen for a reason ((79%). While contradictory, on a deep level it makes sense. We choose (free will) an action, and that action causes things to happen (reason). Our ability to think back in time and fashion a happier outcome than what happened, causes regret when we live in the world of “if only.”
How do we live with regret? We need to keep a future orientation in our lives. As we anticipate our next actions, we can identify the most likely to cause regret. We can ask ourselves, “What will be the consequences of this choice?” I encourage thinking about decisions but more strongly encourage making those decisions. Pink’s book, The Power of Regret, is subtitled, How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. If we learn from our mistakes, the value of the lessons can ease the sting of any regret that occurs.
Our lives consist of thousands of decisions. Knowing which ones are significantly helps us to use our judgment when making those decisions. Exercising a measure of control over our lives is what makes us human, and making mistakes is part of it as well. What regret do you hold in your life that you need to let go? To whom do you regret not saying, “I love you?” My friend Elizabeth Misner called herself a Lovertarian. She knew that love sent came back as happiness. Call them, text them, or write them a letter. Carrying a regret for not doing something you can do is the heaviest burden of all.
Cami Miller is a business coach working with executives, entrepreneurs, and family businesses to develop strategies for success. You can reach her at email@example.com