I missed you, old friend

Scotty P’s mantra from We’re the Millers misses the point. | Warner Bros.

I recently reconnected with an old friend, a friend I had not seen in nearly 30 years, but one who had once been among my closest. Brad was one of the first close friends I made on my own in those first few fleeting and transitory years after college. He was there when I bought my first apartment, when I met my wife. But when he moved away, and then I moved away, breaking the geographical and personal ties we shared, we fell apart. When the opportunity arose to see him again, I was filled with excitement. Our reunion was everything I hoped. The bond was still there. We fell easily into our old rapport, and I know we won’t let each other drift away again. So why do I feel so sad? Regret.

Regret is that feeling of sadness that settles in when we wish we had done something differently, when we believe we made the wrong choice. Everybody has regrets. According to Dan Pink, author of The Power of Regret, to live life without regrets is unrealistic, even nonsense. I am a determined optimist, but even optimists feel regret, if they’re being honest. Pink argues that regret is ubiquitous, the most common negative emotion that people feel and the second most common emotion of any kind, second only to love. Only children and sociopaths don’t feel regret. He claims that regret, while a negative and painful emotion, is actually the most instructive and clarifying emotion and the most powerful opportunity for self-learning that we have.

On her podcast, Digital Human, broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski argues that feeling regret reminds us to think carefully about our decisions and helps us not to make the same mistakes again. Regrets are how we learn about ourselves; they help us see the things we truly want for ourselves.

Through his research interviewing nearly 20,000 people across 109 countries, Pink identifies four core regrets: foundation, boldness, moral, and connection regrets. Foundation regrets are about stability. If only I’d saved money when I was young; if only I’d paid attention to my health or studied harder in school. Boldness regrets are about life’s richness and growth. If only I’d quit my job; if only I’d pursued my crush. People often regret not taking a chance and think about what might have been. Moral regrets are about doing the right thing. Did I live up to my own standards for honesty and integrity? Connection regrets are all about love. Did I lose contact with someone important? Did I let a friendship drift away? We want connections with people we love and who love us. Those four core regrets are ultimately about security, meaning, purpose, and love.

Pink says connection regrets comprise the largest category of regrets. We have a lot of regrets about relationships and friendships drifting apart, and these regrets can be hard for people to process because relationships often come apart in profoundly mundane, undramatic ways. Maybe the split starts with an insensitivity, a slight, or hurt feelings. Maybe it’s just the result of time and distance. I don’t actually think I have a lot of unresolved regrets in my life, but I do have a handful of relationship regrets similar to the one with Brad. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect and rekindle some of those relationships. In some cases, my friend has taken the first step; in others, I have.

Regret is an emotional mechanism. Ruminating on lost opportunities can not only hinder growth, it can also be destructive. But if we use our regrets to see that our time is short, it can help us strive for a life well-lived. What’s my purpose? How do I navigate my limited time here?

These connection regrets, if we listen to them, are telling us how important friendships really are. Friends can help us find purpose and meaning, stay healthy, and live longer. But as Americans are coming out of this pandemic, a new report reveals a decline in close friendships.

Over a generation, American friendship groups have become smaller and the number of Americans without any close confidants has risen sharply, and men appear to have suffered a steeper decline than women. Thirty years ago, 55% of men reported having at least six close friends. Today, that number has been cut in half. Only 27% of men have six or more close friends today; 15% have no close friendships at all, compared to 3% in 1990.

This isn’t the only decline in well-being men have experienced over this period. In his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, Richard V. Reeves outlines a host of troubling trends for men and boys.

In the classroom, American boys are 14 percentage points less likely to be “school ready” than girls at age 5, all else equal. By high school, girls represent two-thirds of the top 10% of the class by GPA, while boys comprise two-thirds of the lowest 10%. In 2020, at the 16 top American law schools, not a single one of the flagship law reviews had a male editor in chief.

In the workplace, one in three men with only a high school diploma is now out of the labor force. Men who entered the work force in 1983 (the year I graduated from high school) will earn about 10% less in real terms in their lifetimes than those in the previous generation. Over the same period, women’s lifetime earnings have increased 33%. Nearly all of the gains that middle-class families have enjoyed since 1970 are because of increases in women’s earnings. Men’s health is also on the decline. Men account for nearly three out of every four “deaths of despair” — suicide and drug overdoses. Men need friends to help them navigate these challenges.

In the second installment of The White Lotus, its writer-director Mike White takes on the plight of the once-indomitable American male. In the first episode, we see one story line focusing on deconstructing the history of machismo and male identity across three generations of one family. Another story line sets two heterosexual couples on an inevitable collision course. One of the men represents peak-Millennial bro culture and the other represents post-gender, sensitive Gen Z drawn to the other like a moth to a flame. As in the first season, I expect a biting critique of money, morality, and relationships among the 1%, but the focus on men is an opportunity to say something about the unique forces shaping men’s lives today. Why do we seem particularly vulnerable to loneliness? How can we navigate the disorientation of changing societal expectations impacting both our personal and professional success?

Life is too short and too fragile to go through it alone. And while counting our close friends might seem intimidating, the size of our social circles appears to matter. Sadly, having just one close friend isn’t much more effective at combating loneliness than having none. For Americans with three or fewer close friends, in fact, loneliness and isolation are fairly common — more than half say they have experienced those feelings at least once in the past seven days. In contrast, only one in three Americans with ten or more close friends report feeling lonely in the past seven days.

All of this brings me back to regrets.

There are two kinds of regrets: closed-door and open-door regrets. With closed-door regrets, such as not reaching out to a friend who was dying, there’s nothing we can do to remedy that failure. We can only aim to do better next time. With open-door regrets, however, such as failing to apologize for something that we did last year, we can still fix it. We can take action today. For these kinds of regrets, it’s not too late, no matter how awkward or difficult it feels.

In addition to family and romantic relationships, friendships are the last bulwark against one of the worst ills of modern life, loneliness. Loneliness is the poison pill for happiness, the thing that most threatens our ability to find meaning, purpose, and love in this life.

I’m so glad to be reconnected to Brad — and John, and Jennifer. I’m sad for the time I missed, but I can only learn from looking back and move forward beyond my regret, striving for the life I want to live. Pink says we need to look back with compassion not judgment. And we need to give ourselves some distance from the pain when we assess how to move forward.

One of the things I’ve learned is to try to prioritize the friendships I have today. Maintain connections. Pick up the phone. Make plans. Make time. And when they don’t have time, keep at it.

There’s a popular Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” I’m planting my tree today.

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Beau Everett

Imagining a better world, while trying to make sense of the one we’ve got.