The 4 types of regret

The 4 categories of regret

Source: Bankrx/Shutterstock

Regret is a powerfully strong emotion that most people have felt, despite all the self-help advice that regret is nonsense and should be avoided. When asked, “How often do you think back on your life and wish you had done things differently?”, only 1% of respondents said never; in fact, 82% of respondents said it was a question they thought about at least occasionally (with around half of those saying often or all the time).

Regret and disappointment occur when an outcome is not what you wanted, expected, or thought it would happen; but, with disappointment, you often think the outcome was out of your control. This is not the case with regret – you believe the outcome was caused by your own decisions or actions. In other words, it’s your fault.

In an effort to learn more about the nuances of regret, author daniel rose and his team surveyed nearly 4,500 Americans to gather their attitudes about it. At the same time, they also launched a website to collect regrets from around the world. To date, Pink and her team have collected more than 16,000 regrets from people in 105 countries. The American Regret Project, in conjunction with the World Regret Survey, is the largest pool of data ever collected on what humans regret.

One of his most interesting findings is that there is a deep structure to regret — four categories into which regrets can be placed (with a key lesson, says Pink, each category is meant to teach):

1. Foundation Regrets

These regrets represent failures to be responsible, conscientious, or careful, and they make you think, “If only I had done the job. Many regrets related to finance and health fall into this category.

Lesson: Think ahead. To do work. Start now.

2. Audacity regrets

Over time, humans are much more likely to regret the inaction, the risks they didn’t take. These opportunities to start a business, pursue true love, or something less grand, like learning a new language or learning to play an instrument. They leave you thinking, “If only I had taken this chance.” Inaction regrets outnumber action regrets in Pink’s survey by two to one.

Lesson: Ask him out. Take the trip. Start the business. Speak on your own behalf or on behalf of someone else.

3. Moral regrets

This category represents times when you had a choice and took the low road. These regrets were the smallest of the four categories, accounting for only about 10% of the total regrets Pink and her team collected. They have found that although they are the smallest in number, they are the most varied and often the most painful individually. They leave you wondering, “If only I had done the right thing.”

Lesson: When in doubt, take the high road.

4. Login Regrets

These regrets arise when you neglect the people who are important to you and who help establish your sense of wholeness. These regrets were the largest category – humans have a lot of regrets about fractured or unfulfilled relationships. These regrets sound like “If only I had reached out.”

These regrets can be either an “open door” – you can always do something about it – or a “closed door”, in which the circumstances are impossible to change. What often thwarts attempts at repair is your own faulty thinking – you massively overestimate how embarrassed or disturbed the receiver will feel while underestimating how positively they are likely to react.

One US Army soldier, for example, shared with our team that his mother’s death created a rift in the family such that he had not spoken to his sister in years. On our school day, he took the train from Philadelphia to New York and showed up unannounced at his sister’s apartment. She was at home, opened the door and burst into (happy) tears.

Lesson: If it’s a regret behind closed doors, do better next time. If it’s an open door regret, do something about it now.

In an effort to learn more about people’s regrets, I asked a small group the following: Which of the two options below do you believe?

  • I have regrets, and they taught me a lot
  • No regrets. My mistakes have brought me to this point in my life.

Sixty-eight responses were collected in 24 hours and the results were as follows:

  • 42 people answered B (62%)
  • 26 people answered A (38%).

This simple question sparked powerful conversations about shame, missed opportunities, the evolution of personal regret philosophy, and regret in general.

The “no regrets” philosophy is strong, but as Pink points out, it’s also dangerous. In adults, the true absence regret can be a sign of a serious illness, including a range of psychiatric and neurological illnesses. Regret is actually a marker of a healthy and mature mind.

People who strongly identify with the “no regrets” philosophy may have simply learned to optimize for regrets. Essentially, life’s misfires are powerful teachers, bringing you closer to what you really need and value: that you want some stability, to grow and explore the world and your place in it, that you want to make the good thing, and eager to love and connect with others. What would you have liked to have done differently?

Read more of the author’s work in Overcoming burnout: why teams hold the secret to well-being and resilience.

Comments are closed.