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Researchers Collected 15,000 Regrets From Around the World. Their No. 1 Lesson Is Just 3 Words Long.



Researchers Collected 15,000 Regrets From Around the World. Their No. 1 Lesson Is Just 3 Words Long. 49



Many people try to live by a “no regrets” motto, pushing aside thoughts of past mistakes and focusing relentlessly on the future. Author Dan Pink’s motto is exactly the opposite: please give me as many regrets as possible.

The author of several best-selling books, Pink’s latest, The Power of Regret, is about how focusing on regrets can actually be useful, if not particularly pleasant. As he explained in a recent interview with Behavioural Scientist, in preparation for the project he and his team put out a call on social media and via their newsletter for people to share their most painful regrets.

The response was overwhelming. An avalanche of some 15,000 regrets from more than 100 countries poured in. Today the trove of missed opportunities and bad decisions is up to 23,000 entries. Pink then combed through this vast depository of regrets looking for patterns that could help us all live more fulfilled, less haunted lives. According to the interview, his biggest takeaway was just three words long.

“Always reach out.”

Pink isn’t the first researcher to try this exercise. A variety of professors and intrigued lay people have collected and collated common regrets over the years. The results of these efforts to mine our collective regrets for insight vary, though many focus on being truer to your own inner voice and values, and listening less to what you think other people expect you to do.

Pink’s team noticed a different pattern. “What really stuck with me were the stories about people in relationships that had drifted apart who didn’t reach out. And then in some cases it was too late, and in other cases, it was just bugging them the whole time,” Pink reports.

The stubbornness with which people fail to heal fraying relationships frustrated Pink. At least until he realized that he too was guilty of failing to reach out to people he knew he should reconnect with. “I thought of the proverb ‘Physician, heal thyself,'” he says. “I realized, Wow, I don’t take my own advice on that. And for the exact same reason. Those stories changed both my perspective and my behavior.”

The experience has left Pink with a new three-word rule for reducing his own regrets. “Now my own mode as a human being is that if I’m at a juncture where I’m saying, ‘Should I reach out or should I not reach out?’ I know the answer,” he says: “Always reach out.”

Science confirms it.

A database of 15,000 regrets is strong evidence that a whole lot of people wish they had taken more initiative in their relationships. But if you’re looking for further evidence in support of Pink’s dead simple “always reach out” rule, then science recently provided some.

A team led by University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business marketing professor Peggy Liu conducted a series of 13 experiments with nearly 6,000 participants all designed to gauge why people don’t reach out to friends or acquaintances and what happens when they do.

The study design may have been complicated but the results were straightforward, according to a writeup of the findings in the New York Times: “Across all 13 experiments, those who initiated contact significantly underestimated how much it would be appreciated. The more surprising check-ins (from those who hadn’t been in contact recently) tended to be especially powerful.”

So basically, we’re all agonizing over whether to make what we fear might be a potentially awkward connection, when the person on the other side would be thrilled if we did. Or to summarize the conclusion with Pink’s memorable and actionable phrasing: when in doubt, “always reach out.”

Contact doesn’t have to be long or in depth to get the ball rolling in the right direction in strained or atrophying relationships. The University of Pittsburgh researchers found that even a quick text or email had an unexpectedly large impact on those who received them.

So if you’re sitting around this holiday season wondering if you should reach out to that old friend you lost touch with, try to patch things up with your sibling after a long simmering argument, or send a greeting to that former colleague, the answer according to experts couldn’t be simpler. Unless the situation is downright abusive or toxic, always reach out.