The Single Biggest Regret People Have in Their 40s, Study Says

If you do this, you may look back on your life with regret.

You may tell yourself you have no regrets, but it's all too human to wonder if you've really lived your best life. Could things have turned out better with a different set of decisions? What if you had taken that job? Or confessed your love? What if you'd packed up your life and moved abroad? What if, what if, what if?

Now, a study published by the American Psychological Association has examined this very question, probing people's most common regrets to identify the ones we're most likely to look back on unfavorably. As it turns out, the majority of people in their 40s regretted one thing: instances of not being true to themselves.

The study centered on "self-discrepancy" theory, which suggests that we all have three versions of ourselves: actual, ideal, and ought. Our actual selves are who we are and who the people around us perceive us to be. Our ideal and ought selves are the idealized version we would like to be and the version we believe we should be, respectively. Most regrets, according to this theory, take place when there is a discrepancy between our actual self and one of the other two versions.

When confronted with questions surrounding regret, the study revealed that it was far more common for people to regret instances where their actual self didn't live up to their ideal self, as opposed to not living up to their ought self. Seventy-three out of 101 study participants (who had a median age of 36) voiced this type of regret.

Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse and the author of a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, came to the same conclusion. After interviewing hospice patients during their final weeks of life, Ware noticed a common theme in their personal reflections. The single most frequent regret among her patients was wishing they'd "had the courage" to live a life more true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.

"This was the most common regret of all," Ware said in an interview. "When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled… Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."

So, consider this: the next time you're confronted with a tough decision, there's one way you're more likely to avoid regret. Don't worry about what you think others expect of you. Just stay true to yourself. And for more on making the most of life, check out these 50 Facts About Happiness That Will Change the Way You Think.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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