This Is Most Likely the Biggest Regret You'll Have in Life, Study Says

Some regrets sting more than others. Here's how to avoid the worst ones.

Regret: it's something we all know intimately, but do our best to avoid. If like most people, you have a few of your own, you've probably given some thought to how you can minimize them in the future. Luckily, research shows that not all regrets are created equally, and there is something you can do to prevent those regrets that tend to linger the longest, and hurt the most. As it turns out, regrets over missed opportunities or actions not taken affect us more deeply than regrets over active mistakes or failures.

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, which used telephone surveys, in-person interviews, and written questionnaires to probe people's deepest regrets, this is true for more than three quarters of us. As the researchers explain, when asked to identify their worst regrets, "76 percent of participants cited an action not taken that would have helped them realize their ideal self."

This means that if an opportunity you've dreamed of comes along but you pass it up for practical reasons (for instance, declining an exciting job opportunity overseas in favor of a lower risk option), you're more likely to regret it later than if you seized the opportunity and it didn't work out.

In fact, when the choice is between something you think you ought to do and something you deeply want to do, you're more likely to be happy after the fact if you've followed your desires—especially when they align with your personal ideals. While of course basic responsibilities like caring for children, managing your finances, and maintaining healthy relationships are a given, outside of that, you're most likely to feel free of regret if you go where opportunity takes you—risks be darned.

But what of those risky decisions that do go awry? Well, the good news is that even when you make a mistake, you usually have time to make it better. You're likely to learn something new about yourself along the way, turning that catastrophe into a hard-won lesson. You may connect with new people through the process, or carve out a whole new path for yourself. In other words, you're more likely to make peace with these types of mistakes, viewing them as an important part of life's journey rather than something you'd undo if you could.

So, if you've got an important decision ahead, get out there and grab life by the horns. Spend less time worrying about how things could go wrong, and more time thinking about how striving for your goals could stir up new possibilities for you—even if you fail. And for more on living your life to the fullest, check out What 90-Somethings Love and Regret Most About Their Lives.

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