Do you wish you’d kept quiet rather than sharing an opinion that hurt someone? Wish you hadn’t told a lie that was quickly found out? Did you let the love of your life slip away, join your family’s business instead of going after your dream career, or play it safe instead of living the life of adventure you secretly crave? These are all examples of regrets—but according to new research, only one type of regret haunts people the most.
Knowing which type that is can help you avoid the most lingering regrets in the future—and can even help you reduce unhappiness from a regret you already have.
THE TRUTH ABOUT “IF ONLY”
Regret, as almost everyone knows, can be a powerful and persistent force that never seems to lose its ability to make us less happy. But understanding why we feel regret can actually help you shake off its grip.
Research done in the 1980s found that people look at themselves through three lenses:
- The actual self: Your sense of who you are—the attributes you believe you possess.
- The ideal self: Who you want to be—your ambitions, wishes and goals.
- The ought self: The qualities you believe you should possess, based on socially and morally rooted duties and obligations.
Where do regrets come in? Regrets stem from not living up to either your ideal self—not being all you “could” have been—or to your ought self—not being all you “should” have been. But to dig deeper, Thomas Gilovich, PhD, at Cornell University, and Shai Davidai, PhD, at The New School, set out to learn what kind of regret sticks with people the most.
The research: Six different ministudies, involving a total of 450 people, were conducted. Participants were asked to describe their regrets. When researchers then analyzed the results, the answer was clear. On average, nearly three-quarters of the regrets that the participants said they had concerned situations in which they hadn’t lived up to their ideal selves. Just over a quarter of their regrets were about their “ought” selves.
Why is that significant? Ideal-self regrets most often involve “inactions,” things we didn’t do and wish we had done, rather than “actions,” things we did and wish we hadn’t. For example, you wanted to get an advanced degree for a more challenging career but didn’t…you wanted to try to strike up a conversation with a person you were interested in but didn’t…you wanted to travel the world for adventure but didn’t—these failures to fulfill an ideal-self wish are the things most likely to turn into deep-seated and lasting regrets.
Why are we so much more affected by ideal-self regrets than ought-self ones? In the moment, you might regret not living up to your “oughts”—duties, responsibilities and obligations—but that feeling tends to fade. What’s more, people tend to resolve “ought” regrets. The interpersonal emotions surrounding them—emotions such as anger and disgust—are so strong that they propel people to correct them. Think about the feelings you might have after lying to a friend. You’re likely to apologize and vow to be truthful in the future.
Ideal-self regrets, on the other hand, don’t spark the same type of emotions, so it’s easier to ignore them. But over time, they feel like unfinished business and gnaw at you, potentially engendering sadness, emptiness and even despair. And these are self-inflicted wounds that time doesn’t heal—they follow you through life…they don’t mellow as you get older.
NO MORE REGRETS
Now that you know what sorts of regrets will bother you the most throughout your life, what steps should you take to be as free as possible from them?
The answer depends on what’s holding you back from pursuing your desires. If it’s your moral code, obey it. Example: Think twice about that trip around the world you never took if taking it now would mean draining your kids’ college fund to do it.
That being said, how can you live up to your ideal self? Take these action steps…
Stop making excuses out of fear. People often don’t act on what they really want because, in the moment, there seems to be compelling reason to hold back. Perhaps you’re afraid the person you really want to ask out will turn you down, so you don’t do it. But years from now, that compelling reason won’t seem so compelling after all. In retrospect, your future self might ask, “What would it have mattered if the answer had been no?” and you would kick yourself even more for your inaction.
Don’t worry about other people’s opinions. Sometimes we don’t follow our hearts because we’re afraid of what other people will think of us. The truth is, people don’t pay nearly as much attention to most of us as we think! Some people will always find fault, but many are more charitable than you may realize. If you agree to sing a solo at the holiday concert and hit a few sour notes, most people will give you a pass…maybe even commend you for putting yourself out there…and you’ll have good memories—not regrets.
Don’t rely on there being a “better time” later. Waiting for that better time is usually a losing game. Whether you want to get an advanced degree for a new career or learn to play the guitar or to speak Mandarin, take a deep breath and take the plunge.