Regret can be a good thing if you treat it correctly. It isn’t exactly a positive emotion but if you’ve ever wondered why something that’s so negative is so ubiquitous, the answer is simple: because it’s useful. Sixty years of science tell us that regret can help us to become better negotiators and problem-solvers; it can also help us to find more meaning in life. Our leaders often feel the need to be invulnerable or perfect. I can understand the impulse: admitting to mistakes can get them clobbered on television or on social media. But they might also be making a tactical error. Research shows that people rarely think less of us if we reveal our mistakes and vulnerabilities.
On a broader level, we are also struggling with collective regret in the US. We must grapple with the reality that our country was founded by people who enslaved others. Meanwhile, in our schools, there’s a big debate on how we should talk about that fact. Some say that the past is the past and that we shouldn’t dwell on it; others argue that we are permanently scarred and irredeemable because of it. But there’s a way to acknowledge the less glorious elements of American history without sweeping them under the rug.
We should confront our past and ask ourselves how we can do better as a country. Regret clarifies what our values are and shows us how we can improve. Many of us haven’t been taught how to deal with these negative emotions. Americans are often over-indexed on sunniness. That said, people don’t need to feel happy all of the time. Our emotions help us to survive and they help us do better. We shouldn’t avoid them, let alone regret them.
Daniel H Pink is author of ‘The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward’. This essay appears in ‘The Monocle Companion: Fifty Essays for a Brighter Future’, which is out this week.