Four Flavours of Regret…

Posted by on Mar 27, 2022 in Blog | 0 comments

desperate young black male covering face with hand and crying in bathroom

In the days I served as a church pastor I would often visit the rest homes in the area and chat with the elderly residents. They were a mixed bag but in my mind they divided into two distinct groups, those who faced their closing years with a sense of resentment, disappointment – even rage, and those who were content and would enthusiastically recall many moments of pleasure and pride from the past. The difference did not stem from their physical condition (for all the residents were very frail), but how they viewed their past. It is clear to me that many face the closing pages of their life with satisfaction from a life well-lived, others with regret – sometimes regret so deep that it poisons every remaining moment.

Daniel Pink’s book The Power of Regret (2022) discusses the World Regret Survey. In it participants were asked to name their regrets, and the survey then classified them according to major themes, of which four stood out well ahead of all others. Arguing that regret can be a constructive force if we use possible regrets to do a pre-mortem of our life rather than a postmortem, Pink argues that awareness of the possibility of later regret can improve our decision making. Put differently, he is urging us to observe the regrets of others (as well as our own regrets from earlier) and learn from them.

So what are the four most common flavours of regret?

The first is a failure to be responsible. This can be through damaging habits we have allowed to sneak up on us such as overeating, not getting enough exercise, skipping school or perhaps not practicing the piano and so wasting the lessons we once had. The consistent theme is the desire for instant gratification and not being willing to face some short term pain for an ultimately much longer gain.

The second is regret for lacking boldness, or for letting our fears dominate our agenda. Many have dreams they have been too timid to follow. They have cautiously held back, but in later life wonder why they settled for mediocrity and safety, rather than backing themselves. The road not travelled looms large and often becomes an “if only” regret. This is a complex area because some have regrets for chasing after dreams that were never going to come true – reckless enterprises that left them in debt and well down the ladder of life achievement. Play it too cautiously and you will regret it, play it too recklessly, and regret will probably follow. Perhaps we need to listen to our hearts more closely. If something really, really matters to you, don’t be afraid – dive in. Better to fail at something we genuinely care about than to remain in the spectator seat of life.

The third flavour of regret is around poor moral decisions. This could range from sexual failure to not standing up for a principle we believe in or failing to stand up for someone else. It might be our sins of commission (the things we have done) or sins of omission (what we have failed to do). Sometimes it is regret for not developing a moral code to guide us. As we look back we recognise how fickle we have been and regret our absence of a moral compass, or our failure to follow its leading.

The fourth realm of regret is around lost relationships and connections. In the rush of life we forget birthdays, obscure anniversaries and friends from the past. Sometimes it is more traumatic and we allow a major falling out to be decisive – and years later wonder what the fuss was about and why we didn’t work it through. This realm of regret is most poignant when death has intervened and there is no longer any turning back. If we do our life planning well, we will actively carve out spaces to stay in touch, and we will say the affirming and loving things we feel while it is still possible to say them.

So there they are – four flavours of regret. Easy enough to think through them and to ask which you might be in danger of falling prey to, and what to do to not make the mistake. It could be that there are better habits to cultivate, or a new boldness to embrace, or a moral compass to adopt or a family member or friend to contact and speak words of love and affirmation to.

What if it has gone badly wrong? It is here that I draw heavily on my Christian faith, which starts with forgiveness and hope and the promise of a better tomorrow. But it also urges us to face reality, and if we have treated anyone poorly, tells us to go and make amends. And it is built around the promise of the resurrection, which reassure us that no matter how bleak things might be, crucifixion Friday can be followed by resurrection Sunday – for we trust in a God who makes all things new. Following God’s leading has – for me – been a totally “no regrets” zone.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Alex Green on

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