The Problem With ‘No Regrets’

If you never pine for a different past, you’ll stay trapped in a cycle of mistakes.

An illustration of a person walking on a path toward a smiling sun, reaching back to hold the hand of a red shadow with many arms and feet
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention,” Frank Sinatra crooned in his 1969 hit “My Way.” The song takes its power from a seductive idea: that anyone can just declare that what’s done is done in life and move on. Some take the declaration a step further and claim that they have no regrets at all (even to the point of tattooing it on their body). Whether an aspiration or an actual philosophy, “No regrets” suggests that life can and should be lived without looking through the rearview mirror.

Easier said than done, though. In 2020, the author Daniel Pink launched the World Regret Survey, the largest survey on the topic ever undertaken. With his research team, Pink asked more than 15,000 people in 105 countries, “How often do you look back on your life and wish you had done things differently?” Eighty-two percent said regret is at least an occasional part of their life; roughly 21 percent said they feel regret “all the time.” Only 1 percent said they never feel regret.

If you are of the “No regrets” school of life, you might think that all this regret is a recipe for unhappiness. But that isn’t correct. True, letting yourself be overwhelmed by regret is indeed bad for you. But going to the other extreme may be even worse. To extinguish your regrets doesn’t put you on a path to freedom; it consigns you to make the same mistakes again and again. True freedom requires that we put regret in its proper place in our life.

As uncomfortable as it is, regret is an amazing cognitive feat. It requires that you go back to a past scenario, imagine that you acted differently to change it, and with that new scenario in mind, arrive at a different present—and then, compare that fictional present with the one you are experiencing in reality. For example, if today your relationship with your partner has soured, your regret might mentally take you back to last year. You would remember your own pettiness and irritability, and then imagine yourself showing more patience, and being kind instead of hurtful at key moments. Then you would fast-forward to today and see a relationship that is flourishing instead of languishing.

Not all regrets are the same, as Pink writes in his new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. They come in four basic varieties, and an instance of regret may involve just one or a combination. Wishing you’d been kinder to your partner is an example of a connection regret, in which you lament behavior that harmed an important relationship, such as spoiling a romance or neglecting your bond with a parent before they died. Many connection regrets overlap with moral regrets, in which you violate your own values. For example, you may pride yourself on being a loving person, and thus regret not living up to this image in the relationship you harmed. Moral regrets can also involve strangers, or just yourself. Maybe you regret violating your commitment to kindness by snapping at a fellow commuter, or not living up to your commitment to your health when you ate a whole pizza or skipped a gym date.

Pink’s other two categories of regrets involve life choices. Foundation regrets are those in which you did something that affected the course of your life in a way you don’t like. A classic example is wishing you had stayed in school, or wishing that you hadn’t moved to New York on a whim. Meanwhile, boldness regrets are the opposite: They’re all about inaction and forgone opportunities. This is what you feel when you kick yourself for not taking a chance, as in, I should have just gone up to that attractive person and introduced myself.

Unanalyzed and unmanaged, any variety of regret can be poison for your well-being. Regret is implicated in depression and anxiety, especially among “ruminators”: people who go over and over their regrets excessively, cutting a deep groove into their daily life. Excessive regret can adversely affect your hormones and immune system. For me, it’s anathema to sleep. I am not alone in this: In 2013, researchers asked one group of participants in an experiment to describe ‘‘your most burdensome regret” right before going to bed; they took 61 percent longer to get to sleep than a group told to think about a typical day.

But regret doesn’t have to be left unmanaged. The trick is not to banish the bad feeling; it’s to acknowledge it and use it for learning and improvement. As Pink told me in an email, “If we reckon with our regrets properly, they can sharpen our decisions and improve our performance.” Instead of letting the specter of your failed relationship make you miserable, by simply wishing it had turned out differently, you can be honest with yourself about what went wrong and use that knowledge to enjoy better relationships in the future.

Regret’s benefits don’t come to us by chance. We have to seek them out on purpose to improve ourselves. Here are three steps you can take the next time you find yourself contemplating your past missteps.

1. Kill the ghost.

People often talk about being “haunted by regret.” This suggests that regret is more than an occasional presence in their life; it’s like a ghost, not entirely clear but always bringing them down. When an emotion resides below the level of your consciousness, an ethereal spirit of cognition rather than a solid thought, it manages you. But if you can make the feeling conscious, you can understand and manage it. As Dan Harris, a journalist and the founder of Ten Percent Happier, told me in a recent episode of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast, “When you’re unaware of that nattering inner voice, it owns you!”

Bring your ghost out of the shadows by making a list of your regrets. Write down why each one still bothers you, and the lingering bad effects you think it might have on your life. Be honest, without being paranoid or catastrophizing. For example, note that you hurt a friend’s feelings through your own fault, but also that this almost certainly didn’t ruin the person’s life. You will find that a list is a lot less frightening than a ghost.

2. Forgive yourself.

After you make a mistake, life moves on. But sometimes you just can’t stop kicking yourself. Perhaps you dropped out of school decades ago and are constantly calculating today how much money you would be making had you pressed on to graduation. In other words, you have voluntarily chosen a life sentence for a poor decision you made in the past.

Now is the time to appeal that verdict. Maybe you’d be making more today, but adding self-loathing to the dollar penalty makes no sense. Resolve to commute your emotional sentence with a simple, verbal declaration: I make amends with myself and will not waste another minute of my life reliving a decision that cannot be changed.

3. Collect your diploma.

Regret is like a school run by human nature. If you never suffered regret, you would keep repeating the same dumb behaviors that led you to miss opportunities and wreck relationships in the past. In fact, this sort of learning is one of the big differences between normal people and psychopaths: In a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that those who display psychopathic traits feel regret, but they don’t update their behavior as a result.

Assuming you are not a psychopath, your regret can teach you to become stronger, smarter, and more successful, if you let it. In your list of regrets, also note what you learned from each experience, how you want it to change your behavior, and your resolutions going forward. For example, write down what exactly dropping out of school did to your work prospects (once again: realistically, without catastrophizing). Next, list all the ways that you can invest in your own skills and self-improvement right now, and get started.

The “no regrets” tattoo may be a modern phenomenon, but people have held similarly mistaken beliefs for centuries. In 1846, for example, Charlotte Brontë composed a poem entitled “Regret,” in which she wrote, “Life and marriage I have known, / Things once deemed so bright; / Now, how utterly is flown / Every ray of light!”

Brontë’s poem is lyrically beautiful, but the philosophy behind it is ultimately simplistic, and wrong. Regrets may hurt, but they don’t need to banish the sunlight from our life. Obsessing over them is destructive. But shunning them, or trying to live without them, is a lost opportunity to grow. Life is a journey full of pleasures and pains. To live it well and fully means learning from every bit of it, including the mistakes, and moving forward.