I taunted and ostracized a girl in late elementary and middle school, for years, I’m ashamed to admit. This was in the early 1960s. Today we’d call it bullying. I can’t explain what drove me to be so mean. I’ve thought fleetingly about that girl over the decades. Then last year, I had a vivid memory of her when I was on the playground with my grandsons. A young boy was being picked on. I pictured my grandsons being that little boy. I cringed and knew I had to track down and apologize to the girl I’d hurt.
“Regret is one of the most common emotions we as humans have,” author Daniel Pink told me recently. Pink, who wrote The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, says that an astonishing “82 percent of Americans experience regret at least occasionally. In most cases, not having regrets is a sign of some kind of disorder.” Pink has surveyed thousands of US adults and more than 22,000 people worldwide for his project, the World Regret Survey, and is continuing to collect and study people’s regrets. (You can go to the online survey and log your own anonymously.) The data show strikingly universal regrets across continents — not having been more responsible in school, or more prudent with money, or more conscientious about health. We look back and wish we’d taken more chances, been more adventurous or pursued bolder opportunities. We have moral regrets for having been unfaithful, or for the hurt or pain we caused someone. Our most common ones? Pink calls those “connection” regrets: not having spent enough time with the people we love.
But it’s not all as negative as it sounds. Rather than ignoring a guilty conscience, or wallowing in shame, Pink urges us to use these uncomfortable thoughts as “signals, as information, as data.” Confront and process your regrets, extract lessons from them, and apply them to the rest of your life. That’s the secret to a good life, Pink says. If a decision or indecision, an action or inaction is still haunting you many years later, that’s an “incredibly strong signal, it’s telling you what you care about.”
“Our regrets,” says the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, senior minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church, “are some of our best teachers and we want to keep them close. We can’t usually go back and undo something, but we can change our behavior in the present and as we walk into the future.” She urges people to settle grudges and disagreements so as to avoid carrying old wounds. Research shows that people with unresolved regrets experience lower levels of well-being and poorer health and life satisfaction.
My heart was pounding the night I got up the courage to send a message on Facebook to the girl I’d bullied 50-plus years ago. Would she remember me? Why had it taken me a lifetime to reach out to her? Would she write back? She messaged me almost immediately. I was the last person in the world she’d expected to hear from, she told me. She recalled the pain and humiliation of those years when we were schoolgirls. She was remarkably open, generous, and kind. She, too, was a grandmother. “The fact that you chose to find me goes a long way to alleviating any past harm,” she wrote. She thanked me for reaching out.
When I shared the story later with my two eldest grandchildren, then 8 and 10, they listened intently and found it hard to believe their Nona had been mean as a young girl. I explained how much I regretted my actions, and that I had found and contacted the girl to apologize and make amends. They talked about mean kids at school and children who were shunned or victimized. We talked about how important it was to try to protect those being excluded, teased, or hurt physically by others.
Reading through the entries of the World Regret Survey made me realize we all have a shot at second chances if we look inward and take action. A man in Washington state was remorseful about not maintaining a good relationship with his kids, who are now adults: “I’m now a grandfather who hasn’t met his granddaughter.” One woman regretted her workaholic tendencies and the missed time with her children — another prevalent theme. Some people wished they hadn’t dropped out of school. Go back, I wanted to tell them; my sister graduated from college later in life. Then there was the guy who, like many, lamented that he didn’t go all in with a woman he loved very much. What are you waiting for, I wanted to say. Go find her!
“We’re not able to time warp and go backwards,” Rev. Harvie told me as we ended our conversation. “It is so important to just move forward and to figure out how do we live with what we’re given. Regret is the first cousin of forgiveness. And sometimes, the first person we have to forgive is ourselves.”
Marianne Jacobbi is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to email@example.com.