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Opinion | Mariko Yugeta and the Motivating Power of Regret

Yugeta shows what happens when we think differently. Her story tracks with the research of the author Daniel Pink, who spent the early part of the coronavirus pandemic helping conduct a huge quantitative analysis on regret — a popular theme during that period. His website, World Regret Survey, has collected more than 19,000 regrets from people in 105 countries.

Among the most common regrets people recounted, as described in Mr. Pink’s recent book, “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward,” were “not pursuing higher education (or not taking it seriously enough), turning down opportunities to travel, and missing final chances to connect with loved ones.” Another common one: not ending a bad marriage. Mr. Pink’s findings suggest that we tend to regret what we didn’t do far more than what we did. Psychologists call those “regrets of omission,” as opposed to “regrets of commission.” Mostly, we regret playing it safe.

That’s ironic, considering the lengths to which we go to prevent feeling regret. All that effort we put into avoiding risk and discomfort might have the opposite of the effect we seek. As Mr. Pink writes, dousing ourselves in exclusively positive emotions stifles growth. It’s the negative feelings that drive us to change.

“We need plenty of positive emotions in our portfolio. They should outnumber the negative ones,” writes Mr. Pink. “Yet overweighting our emotional investments with too much positivity brings its own dangers. The imbalance can inhibit learning, stymie growth and limit our potential. That’s because negative emotions are essential, too. They help us survive.”

Mr. Pink’s findings depict life as an endless decision tree, where we’re compelled to pick one path to the exclusion of all others. As explored in the recently released film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the result can feel like a multiverse of the lives we didn’t live.

Joshua Rothman discussed a similar idea in a 2020 essay for The New Yorker, “What if You Could Do It All Over?” “We have unlived lives for all sorts of reasons: because we make choices; because society constrains us; because events force our hand; most of all, because we are singular individuals, becoming more so with time,” Mr. Rothman wrote. “Even as we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened.”

Yugeta told me about one branching point on her own tree. “When I was young, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she told me. “The regret I had about not making the Olympics was that in order to get there you had to be No. 1 in Japan, and I wasn’t.” She fell short of a rival she would ordinarily beat, who ultimately earned the spot on the Olympic team that Yugeta coveted.

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