Daniel Pink writes about the power of regret:
Positive power of negative emotions
In the early 1950s, a University of Chicago economics graduate student named Harry Markowitz conceived an idea so elementary it now seems obvious – yet so revolutionary it earned him a Nobel Prize. Markowitz’s big idea came to be known as “modern portfolio theory.” What he figured out – if I may oversimplify in the service of getting on with the story – were the mathematics that underlie the adage “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Before Markowitz came along, many investors believed the route to riches was to invest in one or two high-potential stocks. After all, a few stocks often produced humongous returns. Choose those winners and you’d make a fortune. Under this strategy, you’d end up picking lots of duds. But, hey, that’s just the way investing worked. It’s risky. Markowitz showed that instead of following this recipe, investors could reduce their risk, and still produce healthy gains, by diversifying. Invest in a basket of stocks, not just one. Broaden the bets across a variety of industries. Investors wouldn’t win big on every pick, but over time they’d make a lot more money with a lot less risk.
Powerful as Markowitz’s insight is, we often neglect applying its logic to other parts of our lives. For example, human beings also hold what amounts to a portfolio of emotions. Some of these emotions are positive – for example, love, pride, and awe. Others are negative – sadness, frustration, or shame. In general, we tend to overvalue one category and undervalue the other. Heeding others’ advice and our own intuitions, we stuff our portfolios with positive emotions and sell off the negative ones. But this approach to emotions – to jettison the negative and pile on the positive – is as misguided as the approach to investing that prevailed before modern portfolio theory.
Positive emotions are essential, of course. We’d be lost without them. It’s important to look on the bright side, to think cheerful thoughts, to detect light in darkness. Optimism is associated with better physical health. Emotions like joy, gratitude, and hope significantly boost our well-being. We need plenty of positive emotions in our portfolio. They should outnumber the negative ones. 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. Fear propels us out of a burning building and makes us step gingerly to avoid a snake. Disgust shields us from poisons and makes us recoil from bad behavior. Anger alerts us to threats and provocations from others and sharpens our sense of right and wrong. Too much negative emotion, of course, is debilitating. But too little is also destructive. A partner takes advantage of us again and again; that snake sinks its teeth into our leg. You and I wouldn’t be here today if we lacked the capacity, occasionally but systematically, to feel bad.
And when we assemble the full lineup of negative emotions – sadness standing next to contempt perched beside guilt – one emerges as both the most pervasive and most powerful.