Cover art for “The Power of Regret” owned by Riverhead Books.

In “The Power of Regret,” Daniel H. Pink argues — to a large extent, successfully — the case for regret. Regret, he says, is not something to be ashamed of or pretend you don’t have, but rather a crucial tool for improving your life. And he’s here to teach you how.

Drawing on data from two large surveys (the American Regret Project and the World Regret Survey), Pink categorizes our regrets into four groups: foundation regrets (making decisions that undermine your baseline well-being), boldness regrets (playing it too safe), moral regrets (acting contrary to your morals), and connection regrets (failing to build or maintain strong relationships). These categories not only help us understand the regrets we have, but the fundamental human needs underlying all else: stability, growth, goodness and love.

These concepts, among others, are examined in great depth. Pink attempts to answer the question of why so many of us make these mistakes — sometimes over and over — and what to do to break the cycle. He does not just explain his theories on regret; he backs them up with interviews, excerpts from his surveys, academic research and philosophy.

Halfway through this book, I opened my Notes app and drafted a list of regrets. Like everyone, I have a fair few things I regret: friendships I’ve let drift, opportunities I’ve missed out of fear or exhaustion and hurtful things I’ve said. Some of these (and more) came immediately to mind; others crept in later, as I read more examples of other people’s regrets and instinctively compared them to my own life.

This wasn’t a depressing venture, as one might expect. Pink’s whole premise is that regret is not bad, even though it may hurt to feel. Quite the opposite — regret is necessary and beneficial. This idea permeates everything he says. So, even before Pink had begun discussing strategies for utilizing regret, I was thinking: What are these regrets telling me? This is a far cry from my usual coping mechanism of blocking regrets from my mind, so the fact that he made this introspection seem both important and manageable is a massive point in this book’s favor.

One of the key lines that stood out to me more than anything else is that “feeling is for thinking.” There are various schools of thought when it comes to our emotions: Should we ignore them as unnecessary interruptions in our logical processes? Should we accept them as part of us and allow ourselves to feel them fully? Pink argues that these strategies lead respectively to repression or wallowing — neither of which inspire growth. Instead, feeling is for thinking, and thinking is for doing. When you feel regret (or any negative emotion), you are being sent an internal message telling you that something isn’t right and it’s up to you to figure out what that is and how to fix it.

This all felt a bit overwhelming, but Pink lays out an action plan with concrete steps to take for each regret you identify. Three of the most important components are what he calls “Disclosure, Compassion and Distance.” First, you disclose your regret (even if just to yourself), which has profound psychological effects and makes the regret easier to manage. Next, you practice self-compassion to “normalize and neutralize” the regret. Lastly, you distance yourself from it to strategically think about how to proceed.

He also proposes a plan of attack for using your newfound knowledge of regret to avoid future regrets. However, here’s where the problems begin (or, perhaps more accurately, are not satisfactorily answered for).

First is the question of which type of potential regret would arise from any particular situation. Pink tells us to only analyze whether or not we’d regret our decision if the regret would fall into one of the “big four” categories (foundation, boldness, morals or connection), but even the big four regrets can be in conflict with one another. How do I know whether by opening a business I’m taking a bold step or jeopardizing my financial foundation? Or, on the other hand, if by not opening that business I’m shying away from growth or making a smart financial choice? If I break off a long but taxing friendship, am I prioritizing my mental health and boldly stepping outside of my safety net, or am I losing a close connection I’ll miss later? If I choose to take a year off after college to travel the world, am I recklessly endangering my health, future career and financial wellbeing, or am I taking a wondrous leap into adventure and growth?

There are no clear answers to these questions. And while one man cannot answer every question every person has about their lives, I don’t think I’m any more equipped to answer them after reading this book. I’m just a bit more scared of making the wrong decision and someday sending in a survey answer like those littered throughout this book (“I regret ignoring my inner voice and not heeding its plea to be more adventurous,” or maybe, “Rather than thinking of the future, I spent too much time enjoying the present”).

Furthermore, some of Pink’s claims need more substantiation. For example, he says that you should open a business because he received more responses to his two surveys from people who regretted not opening a business than people who regretted opening one (“A few people who launched businesses that closed down expressed regrets about excessive risk… But these people represented a distinct minority compared with those who regretted never taking the leap”). But one cannot help but wonder — was this claim given a fair trial? What if in this sample of American Regret Project and World Regret Survey respondents, far more people didn’t open businesses than did? That finding is then just a numbers game. To fully back up that claim, more research is needed, including a trial measuring the business-related regret of two equally sized, randomized groups: one group who opened a business (including people whose businesses succeeded and failed, proportional to real-world outcomes), and one group who didn’t. Without randomized, representative data, this claim that people who don’t open businesses are more regretful about it than those that do is on shaky empirical footing (although certainly plausible). While his research is significant, it is not all-encompassing, and at times it felt like it was being asked to do more than it reliably could (especially given that the samples were not randomized and no variables were controlled for).

Despite these caveats, I do believe this book leaves you with important takeaways nonetheless. His big-picture ideas on the power of regret can inspire real change, and they have already started working their way into my mindset and behaviors. Anyone who has regrets — which, if we are to believe Pink, is everyone — could benefit from learning how to take control back from cringe- or self-flagellation-inducing emotions, understand what our past can tell us about our future, and make better decisions going forwards.

Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at