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Never regret saying “I have no regrets”, is the powerful message that best-selling author Daniel Pink stives to convey to his readers in his newest book, “The Power of Regret”. As the title prosaically suggests, the hitherto scorned, sympathised and negatively viewed emotion of regret can be harnessed towards positive and fulfilling outcomes, both personal and professional. Regret is a phenomenon “into” which one can look, both going backward into the past and forward into the future. Hence before getting yourself a tattoo that boldly exclaims “No regrets”, think twice, because as Daniel Pink helpfully suggests, the tattoo removal industry is a burgeoning and lucrative profession. Removing a tattoo costs at least ten times more than getting one!
Daniel Pink knows what he is writing as he can lay claims to being an amanuensis of regret! In 2020, he, along with a tiny team of survey research experts, we designed carried out the largest quantitative analysis of American attitudes about regret ever conducted: the American Regret Project. This survey categorized the regrets of 4,489 people who comprised a representative sample of the U.S. population. If you do happen to have any regrets, please head type in www.worldregretsurvey.com. This website, designed by Pink and his team, has collected more than sixteen thousand “regrets” from population spanning 105 countries.
Daniel Pink categorises regret into four broad buckets – foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. Foundation regrets represent a morass of irresponsibility, a failure to be conscientious and a failure at prudence. Boldness regrets, in layman terms, is ruing over lost opportunities due to innate reticence and hesitancy. Connection regrets epitomise damaged relationships with a spouse, friends, parents, siblings, and offspring.
So how does one make the most of wallowing in regret, supposing one can even envisage such a possibility? Make a beeline towards the offices of Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo. These three intrepid researchers collected videos of about three dozen silver and bronze medalists. The trio then ‘rated’ the competitors’ facial expressions on a ten-point “agony-to-ecstasy” scale. The bronze medalists were inexplicably happier than their silver winning counterparts. The average rating of the facial expressions of bronze medalists was 7.1. But silver medalists were rated only 4.8. Why would this be so? The answer: counterfactuals. The bronze medalists are invested with a ‘downward’ counterfactual that propagates an “at least” sense of perception, whereas the silver medalists are ‘plagued’ by an ‘upward’ counterfactual that gnaws at them by informing them of an “if only”, phenomenon.
These overtly cheerful bronze medalists dispense three key and positive attributes of regrets: Regrets sharpen our decision-making skills; Regrets elevate our performance on a range of tasks; Finally regrets enhance and embellish our sense of meaning and connectedness. The opportunity accorded by regret to turn over a new leaf is not something new. As Daniel Pink illustrates, this channeling of regret to optimistic ends has been the prerogative of many of our earlier generations. Folklore has it that in the fifteenth century, a Japanese shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa splintered a Chinese tea bowl. The Shogun dispatched the damaged bowl back to China for repairs. But when the bowl came back it was in a shambolic state. The broken bowl was barely contained by bulky metal staples. Yoshimasa commissioned his local craftspeople with an assignment to find a more conducive and convincing means to repair expensive broken China. The result: “Kintsugi” (literally meaning “golden joinery”). The craftsmen sanded down the edges of the broken pieces and glued them back together using lacquer mixed with gold. According to one report, “kintsugi was such a fashionable phenomenon that some people were known to smash their tea bowls on purpose in order to embed them with golden-veined repairs.” The repaired bowls were rendered beautiful BECAUSE of their imperfections. The cracks made them better! Similar is the phenomenon of regret. From irreparable loss, arises unadulterated hope.
Before concluding his book, Daniel Pink offers some handy tips to overcome the burden of regret. With an objective of desisting from including ‘spoilers’, here’s setting out a few primary tools:
- Find the Silver Lining:
Take a leaf out the book of those bronze medalists. Recast the way you think about regret. Try completing the sentence, “At least…”
- Converse and Convey:
Get rid of the monkey riding your back by divulging your regrets with a few trusted aides/confidantes. Better still, write them down. Writing is tantamount to admitting.
- Practice the art of Self Compassion:
Confront your regrets head on, but do not self-flagellate yourself a la Leo Tolstoy. This will prompt you to not just take your regrets head on but also come out of the entire experience much the wiser.
- Self-Distancing is the key:
Julius Caesar was the epitome of this art. A master of “illeism”, he always referred to himself in the third person. He was practising self-distancing. According to Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Özlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley, people who self-distance “focus less on recounting their experiences and more on reconstruing them in ways that provide insight and closure.”
“The Power of Regret” is a bold foray into tackling a most misunderstood and feared emotion in a scientific, systematic and scholastic fashion. Daniel Pink more than just succeeds in this endeavour.