Can You Use the 4 Regrets to Gain Happiness and Peace?
Frank Sinatra was on the edge of giving up his career. “I’m quitting the business,” he said. “I’m sick of it. I’m getting the hell out.”
A friend of his, Paul Anka, decided he couldn’t let that happen. So he wrote a song so good that Sinatra couldn’t refuse it.
My Way, the song Anka wrote, became the most successful song in Sinatra’s entire career. It also kept Sinatra in show business for another 30 years.
Much can be said about My Way (“I’ve lived a life that’s full…I did it my way”), but what’s of interest here is the boast that the singer of the song makes:
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
That sounds like a good thing, right? Saying you’ve almost always made the right decision for yourself?
The thing is, if you’re the sort of person who stands proudly under the “No Regrets” banner, you’re losing a lot — a whole lot.
What are regrets?
Regrets are an inevitable part of your life. Why? Because you’re not perfect and you make decisions that, immediately or eventually, you wish you had done differently. We call some of these decisions mistakes, but when there’s a painful emotion when you recall what you did, you have a regret.
The 4 kinds of regrets
These are what the four kinds of regrets look like:
In college, you party, eat, and drink a lot. You don’t exercise, you spend all of your money on whatever you want, and you get poor grades. Ten years later, your body feels sluggish, you’re still cash-poor, and you hate the boring entry-level job you’re stuck with.
In this example, you are failing to develop needed skills and resources — in this case, physical well-being, financial responsibility, and the education that will get you a good job — things that you need before you can start improving your life.
This is a foundation regret. It sounds like this: I wish I had done the work.
You pass on a promotion at work because you would have to work longer hours and the pay’s the same. A coworker takes all the promotions they’re offered and now has an interesting job that pays more. Now, you wish you had taken the promotion.
This is a boldness regret. It sounds like this: I wish I had taken the risk.
You unexpectedly dump your current partner for someone more attractive. Your partner is devastated and you boast about how much better your new love interest is. Later, you feel bad about how you treated the partner you really cared for.
This is a moral regret. It sounds like this: I wish I had done the right thing.
You make a friend who you trust and can rely on. You have meaningful conversations that you couldn’t have with anyone else. Then they move to another city, and you lose contact with them. Years pass, and you realize that you have lost an important friend.
This is a connection regret. It sounds like this: I wish I had reached out.
Here’s what usually happens: You do something that you regret, wince at it, and move on with your life. But the negative effects of the regret sap you of energy that you would otherwise use to move your life forward.
But, you say, regrets are in the past, and that can’t be changed. What good is knowing more about regrets?
Can regrets improve your life?
Absolutely — if you’re willing to make some changes.
For foundation regrets: You can’t change the past, but you can take steps to undo the damage and to begin new behaviors that will give you a strong foundation that will support your further efforts. Join a gym; develop a healthier body. Resist impulse buys; save more money. Return to college and finish your degree, or take courses to learn new skills; get the education that will enable you to get a better job.
For boldness regrets: Take a chance on something you’ve been thinking about; say “yes” to an opportunity. Find places in your life where you can make small changes. You’ll feel more confident and less anxious.
For moral regrets: If it’s feasible, apologize to the other person. Commit to being a kind and moral person; do the right thing. Write down your resolutions and post them where you will see them often. Look at your shortcomings, figure out where you fell short, and correct this going forward.
For connection regrets: If possible, reconnect with the other person; you may worry that contacting them will be awkward, but research has shown that most people will be very glad to see you. If reconnection is impossible, write about your good memories with them, adding pictures if you have them; resolve to prevent the loss of friendships in the future.
An added benefit of acting on your regrets is that you benefit not only in the future, but also right now. Your regret becomes softer and less burdensome, which makes you feel lighter. You will have more energy to pursue the day’s work (instead of having some energy being drained away by your regrets).
Why you should take action
There are many kinds of regrets, and only you can figure out what your regret is and how you should move forward. Some of the advice in the examples above always applies to that type of regret; in other cases, you will have to find your own way forward.
But whatever the regret, addressing it and taking some action will decrease the burden of it. Addressing it can also change the underlying tone of your life. You may feel less depression, anxiety, anger, or some other negative emotion. You may also feel peace, contentment, lightness of being, or some other positive emotion.
Analyzing your regret and taking action is always a worthwhile pursuit.