Sweet Regret

What do you get when you cross Paul Bloom with Dan Pink? Well, “Sweet Regret” naturally.  

We recently had the honor to interview both authors on Behavioral Grooves. We were excited about both interviews and were pleasantly surprised when we noticed that the concepts we discussed from their books intersected and built off of each other in ways that we were not expecting.  

We noticed that the “positive outcome of suffering” and “the power of regret” interweave to give us a glimpse of something uniquely new and important.  

In this short article, we take a deeper look into this confluence of two great thinkers and the implications that arise from their exploration of how we think about and respond to both suffering and regret.  

The Sweet Spot

Let’s begin with a brief overview of our conversation with Paul Bloom which focused on his latest book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.  In the book and in our conversation with Paul, he explores the question of “…why do we choose suffering?” 

Why do we choose to feel the sharp pain of jumping into a frozen lake for a polar plunge, or choose to get up and go run in the rain and sleet and snow, or choose to go to a scary movie that makes us cringe with fear?  

We often state that we want to live a life free of pain and suffering, yet, we choose to do things that are at odds with that statement.   

Paul reminds us that a life of pure pleasure is not the best path to happiness or meaning. In fact, we actually need some suffering in order to really enjoy the pleasure. He even shows us that we can find pleasure in the pain and suffering that we endure. 

Paul differentiates between unchosen suffering (breaking your leg while skiing) and chosen suffering (training for your first marathon) and he reminds us how very important it is for us to seek diversity and variety in our life experiences. He states, “You ask people what emotions they want to experience, and they don’t just say, only the good ones, they recognize that a fulfilling life involves some experience of frustration, maybe of sadness, anger, disappointment – if you don’t have that you’re missing out.” 

He also reminds us that our motivations are not so simple and singular as always just wanting one thing. On the contrary. Paul says we have motivational pluralism: “We have evolved through natural selection and then have been shaped by culture and society, to want many things.

We really do want pleasure.

When it’s really hot outside and you’re parched, you really want a cool drink. It feels great. We want sex, we want food, we want pleasure. But we also want to do good things, we want to be good people, we want to see justice done.” In short, the motivation that impacts what we do and why we do it is complex. 

The Power of Regret

Our conversation with Dan Pink focused on insights from his book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. We discussed that regret is a very human emotion and that we can harness motivation from regret if we have the right mindset about it. 

Regret is universal and it is complex. 

We cannot, and Dan very compellingly argues, should not try to live a life with “no regrets.”  He posits that regret is a basic component that allows us to learn and grow as humans.  

He breaks down regret into four main archetypes:

  1. Foundational regrets.  Those small lapses that we do every day lead to negative future impacts. Things such as not studying enough throughout the semester, not exercising enough, not putting money away into savings.  
  2. Boldness regrets.  These are regrets where we don’t take chances or attempt to accomplish the things that we want. Examples include not asking a person you like to go on a date, not going to the Prince concert because it was a school night, not going to LA to try to break into the music industry.  
  3. Moral regrets.  When we do something that we feel transgresses our moral foundation.  Things such as cheating on our spouse, lying to a friend, having an abortion, or not serving in the military. 
  4. Connection regrets.  These are regrets that focus on damaging or losing connections with people.  These are usually not big blowouts, but what Dan calls drifts.  Too often, our relationships with parents, friends, siblings, co-workers, or neighbors slowly drift apart due to a lack of energy and effort, and those relationships suffer because of it.

We talked with Dan about the ways we can harness regret to lead a better life.  Regret doesn’t need to be something that we need to negatively ruminate on – but instead, we can look at it objectively and learn from it. 

Since regret is a part of life, anyway, why not use it for good?

Both suffering and regret are an integral part of our human condition and we need to accept that and even embrace them and to learn from them.   Share on X

We can use anticipated regret (i.e., thinking about what regret we would feel in the future for an action we take today) to help us make better decisions.  There is power in regret to help us be better people.

The Intersection of Suffering and Regret  

There is a confluence between these two ideas.  At the most basic level, we can view regret as a form of suffering.  We can, and often do, choose to suffer.  We don’t often choose to have regret – although there are those times when we still choose to do something even when we state, “I’m going to regret this in the morning.”  

On another level, there is a common thread in how we conceptualize suffering and regret.  

Our common culture views these two realities in a harsh light.  If at all possible, they are things to be avoided.  Both authors argue that this is an incorrect way to view suffering and regret.

They conject that the more appropriate and beneficial way to think about them is to see them as a universal part of our human experience.  Both suffering and regret are an integral part of our human condition and we need to accept that and even embrace them and to learn from them.  

The authors discuss how suffering “is just a part of a full, rich life”: and that regret can “reveal a lot about what makes life worth living.”  

Work done by Dr. Alia Crum, the Director of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab shows that our mindsets or core beliefs about a particular domain or category (i.e., suffering or regret) have a powerful influence over how the aspects of that domain impact us – both mentally and at a physiological level. 

Our mindsets orient our thinking, thus influencing what we expect will happen, how we explain what we are feeling, impacting the release of a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters in our brain, and ultimately changing our likelihood to either approach or avoid a domain. 

While neither of them directly references Dr. Crum’s work, they definitely are applying it.  Our minds and bodies are literally changed by what we believe.  

[Mindsets definition: Core beliefs or assumptions about a category or domain that orient us to a particular set of expectations, explanations, and goals.] 

Both Dan and Paul show us that our beliefs and our mindsets about suffering and regret can be, and should be, reprogrammed.  If we tell ourselves a different story about them, then they will have a different, potentially more positive impact on our lives.    

One easy thing to do is to adopt a powerful tool that Dan refers to as reframing our deep-seed regrets from “If only…” (as in, “If only I would have done this or that”) to “At least…” (as in “At least I tried to do this or that).

By reframing our regrets, not purely rationalizing them, we can focus on the effort we’ve put into living the life we want to live and to learn from what has worked and what didn’t. The more positive frame aligns better with learning so we can actually take those lessons to the bank for future decisions. 

The stories that we tell ourselves about suffering and regret matter. These are not things to be avoided at all costs, they are opportunities for us to experience our humanness and to learn and grow.  

We can change how we view the stories of regret and suffering, and if we do, our experience of suffering and regret will change as well.  

The final paragraph in Dan’s book was so terrific that we asked him to read it on the podcast, and he did. But in light of the confluence between regret and suffering, the last paragraph could be rewritten to include the concept of suffering.  We might think about it this way:

“After a few years immersed in the science and experience of our most misunderstood emotions – regret and suffering, what we’ve discovered about ourselves, is what we’ve discovered about others. Regret and suffering make us human. Regret and suffering make us better. Regret and suffering give us hope.”

The hope is that we can use our regret and suffering in powerful and meaningful ways that enhance life’s experience. With a better understanding of regret and suffering, we gain a new line of sight to a new path for how we lead our lives. 

So that, in the changing of our beliefs, we can change our realities. 

This is what sweet regret is all about.