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You're More Likely to Regret This Than Anything You Do, Study Says

Psychologists agree, this is what's most likely to haunt you.

When you imagine the things that will cause you a sense of regret later in life, you probably think about relationships that ended, job opportunities you didn't seize, and times you behaved less than favorably. But in reality, the thing you're most likely to regret is not about your love life, your career, or your bad behavior; it's about not pursuing your education or taking it more seriously. Read on to find out why, and for more age-specific regrets, here's The Single Biggest Regret People Have in Their 40s.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois, Champaign performed a meta-analysis of 11 studies on regret. After looking at the regrets of 3,041 study subjects, they found that the biggest regrets people have in life centered on education. According to the researchers, psychologists Neal J. Roese and Amy Summerville, an incredible 32 percent of the regrets analyzed centered on education.

"Education appears as the number one regret of Americans is a remarkably consistent finding across these studies," the authors conclude in their findings, published in the Personality and Social Bulletin in 2005. Why is that? Well, as they note, "Opportunity breeds regret. … In contemporary society, education is open to continual modification throughout life. With the rise of community colleges and student aid programs in recent decades, education of some sort is accessible to nearly all socioeconomic groups. You can always go back to school." And because education is within reach for many Americans, they're most likely to regret it if they don't pursue it.

The Guardian columnist Emma Freud recently polled Twitter with the simple question, "What is your biggest regret," and found similar results as the University of Illinois, Champaign study. Among the hundreds of responses she received, many were surrounding the topic of education. "Education was high up the list," she wrote for the U.K. paper. "There were many more regrets to do with school and college than I would have expected."

Some, for example, included: "Never going to university. Left me disadvantaged all my life. Never lived my potential"; "Not getting a better education"; and "Leaving school in '80s & not going to art college."

Similarly, Eric Jackson, PhD, a tech and media investor, wrote for Forbes that even those without a formal education who are successful regret not getting a degree. "I've spoken with lots of folks who didn't graduate with a high school or college degree. When I met them, they were already well-known at their job," he explained. "However, if the education topic ever came up in private conversation, almost universally, you could tell they regretted not getting their degree. It made them insecure, almost like they worried they were going to be 'found out.'"

Additionally, how one spends their time at school is a common source of regret. Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of professionals across all disciplines and age groups on their regrets. They found that one of the most common ones was: "I wish I had used my time at school more productively." "After starting a family and signing up for a mortgage, many were unable to carve out the space to return to school for advanced study to reset their careers," the Harvard researchers point out.

For the other common regrets (in descending order), according to the University of Illinois, Champaign study, read on. And for more on this subject, here are 50 Regrets Everyone Has Over 50.

Regrets about friendship

Girlfriends in conflict are sulking each other

1.44 percent

And for more feelings you're most likely to look back on not so fondly, here are the 40 Most Common Regrets People Have in Their 40s.

Regrets about health

older black woman with head in hands talking to doctor

1.47 percent

And for the behavior MDs don't want you to regret, here are 40 Habits Doctors Wish You'd Stop After 40.

Regrets about family

adult parent and adult child arguing

2.25 percent

Regrets about finance

money and dollars in cash

2.52 percent

And for the truth about how finances make you feel, know that Money Only Buys You Happiness Until You Earn This Much, Study Says.

Regrets about leisure

sad muslim woman in hijab on couch
Shutterstock/Dragana Gordic

2.55 percent

Regrets about your sense of self

Young man sitting at home. Sad guy sitting on the couch , copy space

5.47 percent

And if you're looking for a stronger sense of self, start with The Single Biggest Lie You Need to Stop Telling Yourself.

Regrets about parenting

parents fighting while child looks on

10 percent

And for more guidance on what not to say to your little ones, here are 25 Things Parents Should Never Say to Their Kids.

Regrets about romance

couple fighting and heading for divorce

15 percent

Regrets about career

man going for a job interview

22 percent

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Regrets about education

Kid Applying to College Ways School is Different

32 percent

John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more