Daniel Pink has 19,000 regrets and counting. What can we learn from his research?

Self-reported moral regrets tend to mirror violations of the Ten Commandments, the author says in his new book

In sorting through thousands of self-reported regrets, Daniel Pink noticed a trend. The moral transgressions that people regret, he says, read “like the production notes for a Ten Commandments training video.”

There’s the infidelity. The sacrilege. The theft. And yes, even homicide if you see abortion as such. These are among the regrets that Pink has cataloged in the years that he has studied human regret, both in the U.S. and worldwide. His database is a poignant collection of memories that still cause pain for people even decades after the events occurred. 

Some examples from Pink’s new book, “The Power of Regret”:

A 51-year-old woman who regrets not having her mother present at her marriage ceremony: “I could have given her the happiness of seeing me married, and I selfishly didn’t work to make that happen.” 

A 34-year-old woman who regrets an abortion: “I was young, in college, and scared, but it has haunted me ever since.”

An 84-year-old man who regrets not kissing his wife more: “I regret every kiss I could have given to my wife but didn’t because I was too busy during our 62 years of marriage before she died of COVID.”

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The examples that Pink collects on his World Regret Survey run the gamut of what he considers the four kinds of regrets: foundational (things we could have done earlier in life that would have made our lives better); boldness (being hesitant and unwilling to take risks); moral (violating standards we know are correct); and connection (failing to engage with others). Some are wistful, like the people who wished they’d learned to play a musical instrument, while others are absolutely heart-wrenching, like the woman who regrets an abortion and dreads having to apologize to the child in an afterlife.

The fallacy of ‘no regrets’

The very existence of regret runs counter to the prevailing culture defined as “no regrets,” a slogan that is seen on T-shirts, bracelets and even tattoos. The “no regret” tattoos are especially ironic, Pink notes, given that tattoo removal is a $100 million industry in the U.S.

But at least a regretted tattoo can be removed. It’s not so easy to purge oneself of other types of regrets, especially for the increasing number of people who don’t have the comfort and rituals of religious faith.

“Every religious tradition has mechanisms, practices, rituals to help us contend with that negative emotion,” Pink told me recently. “Secular society — and I say this as a largely secular person — hasn’t done a good job of helping us deal with negative emotions. We overemphasize positivity. We’re leaving people adrift in how to contend with them.”

He noted, for example, the Catholic sacrament of penance, or confession, and the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. These are rituals and practices that help people of faith deal with the concept of sin and its effects. But even people who are raising their children outside of organized religion — and without knowledge of sin, as one writer described in The New York Times — cannot escape regret, which is a core human emotion, Pink says.

Whether or not we profess religious faith, it seems there is much we can learn from others’ most profound regrets.

Take, for example, the experience of having children. Among more than 19,000 regrets entered into the World Regret Survey database, a negligible number of people — “in the single digits” — said they regret having children.

“I thought that was interesting because there’s other research showing that having kids actually diminishes your day-to-day subjective well-being, your moment-to-moment happiness. But there’s also evidence showing that having kids deepens your broader sense of meaning. That’s pretty telling,” Pink said.

“I think a lot of these regrets go back to what we ultimately seek out of life. ... And a meaningful life is not always a life that is blissful.”

Regrets that ‘ache the most’

In “The Power of Regret,” Pink says that moral regrets, the sense of not having done “the right thing,” represent only about 10% of the regrets that he has studied. “But for many of us,” he writes, “these regrets ache the most and last the longest.” (Guilt, he told me, is not the same as regret, but is a subset of moral regret, and is usually about something we have done, rather than something we have failed to do.)

The five most common moral regrets are harm to others (such as bullying); cheating (infidelity or cheating in other sort of transactions); disloyalty (which brings to mind Stephen Covey’s advice to “be loyal to people who are not present”); subversion (being disrespectful or dishonoring people like parents or teachers); and desecration (violating standards of sanctity.) Curiously, it is the last category in which abortion comes up.

“These regrets were partly about harm, but they were bigger than that: a belief that the actions amounted to a degradation of the very sanctity of life,” Pink wrote.

So what do we do with this information? Pink believes that regret can be transformational. Thinking about our regrets, talking about them and — when possible — doing something about them, can help us improve our decision-making, boost our performance and deepen meaning in our life. “To me, regret clarifies what’s important to us, and instructs us how to do better,” Pink told me.

Count me as someone who has no problem with public monuments proclaiming the Ten Commandments, the source of many legal disputes over the past decade, some still ongoing. To me, the World Regret Survey shows the worth and continued relevance of this ancient moral advice, some of which is encoded in secular law. Pink, however, isn’t willing to go there.

“In a country like ours, a pluralistic country that is committed in its Constitution to not establishing a state religion, I don’t think we should have the Ten Commandments in public spaces. ... But I do think there’s broad consensus on a lot of them. We have laws against murder. We have laws against stealing, and against bearing false witness.”

So it remains up to parents, religious schools and places of worship to keep the Ten Commandments front and center in our consciousness. But the long-lasting regrets of others can also be instructive in how to live — and what to avoid.

Our children, for example, might benefit from the example of the 71-year-old woman from New Jersey who reported on the World Regret Survey that she remains troubled by having stolen candy bars from a neighborhood store as a child. She wrote, “That’s bothered me for about 60 years.” Like the other regrets, the woman’s remorse serves as both confession and instruction.