Everyone has regrets, but you always imagine that those regrets revolve around the mistakes that you think you made. Maybe you regret calling off your wedding. Maybe you wish you hadn’t married the man you chose. Maybe you want to quit your job and move to Bali, but you’re worried it’s the wrong choice.
We focus so much on the decisions we make in the moment, but a new study published in the journal Emotion indicates that the old adage still rings true: it’s not the things you do in life that you regret, it’s the things you don’t do.
In a paper entitled “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” Cornell psychologists identified three elements that make up a person’s sense of self. Your actual self consists of qualities that you believe you possess. Your ideal self is made up of the qualities you want to have. Your ought self is the person you feel you should have been, according to your obligations and responsibilities.
In surveying the responses of hundreds of participants in six studies, the researchers found that, when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of participants said it was not fulfilling their ideal self.
This indicates that we might have a flawed attitude toward how to avoid regret. We live in a world in which we are told that we’ll have a great life if we follow the rules. So you figure that if you do all of the things that society expects of you—act like a good citizen, get married at the appropriate time, make enough money to pay the bills—that you’ll feel happy and fulfilled with your life. But those are all qualities associated with your ought self, which the study found people have limited regrets about (in part because they actually act on decisions associated with it). But when it comes to your dreams and aspirations, people are more likely to let them just drift by unrealized, and that’s what really stings later in life.
“People are quicker to take steps to cope with failures to live up to their duties and responsibilities (ought-related regrets) than their failures to live up to their goals and aspirations (ideal-related regrets),” the study reads.
“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life,” Tom Gilovich, the the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology at Cornell and lead author of the paper, said. “The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you. To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact. But for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”
The results of the study indicate that it’s not enough to encourage people to just “do the right thing.” We need to establish that it’s vital for people to act on their hopes and dreams, and that it isn’t normal to just keep putting them off indefinitely.
“In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions,” Gilovich said. “But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.”
It also implies that we need to stop making excuses for our own inaction. So learn that language you’ve always wanted to study. Take that backpacking trip through Asia you’ve been talking about for ages. Write that book that’s been tinkering around in your head for years. Don’t leave it for tomorrow. There’s only today. And for more on the things we regret later in life, check out the 50 Most Common Regrets People Have in Their 50s.
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