EMOTIONAL HEALTH
June 14, 2018

"If Only I Had..."

Everyone has regrets, but only certain types of regret are likely to haunt us.

What's your biggest regret? Chances are, it involved something you didn't do, a time when you weren't true to your ideals, rather than something that you did.

The finding builds on the research of Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University, whose work focuses on everyday human judgment. In a study published in Emotion, Gilvich found that people tend to regret things they haven't done more than the things that they have done.

People were asked to compare regrets stemming from their “ought” self, those involving duties, obligations and responsibilities, to regrets reflecting the hopes, goals, aspirations and wishes of their “ideal” self in a series of six studies. Over 75 percent said their life's biggest regret came from not fulfilling their ideal self, and 72 percent said they experienced regrets related to their ideal self more often than those from their ought self.

“People are more charitable than we think and also don't notice us nearly as much as we think. If that's what holding you back — the fear of what other people will think and notice — then think a little more about just doing it.”

These sorts of regrets reflect the roads not taken in a person's life — forsaken dreams, romances not pursued or adventures never attempted. They came when people didn't seize the moment.

To keep regret to a minimum, don't let a lack of inspiration and fear of what others may think hold you back, Gilovich advises. “Don't wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”

And for those who want to sing, dance or write a screenplay, but are held back by fears about what others might think of their creative effort, Gilovich offers similar advice: “People are more charitable than we think and also don't notice us nearly as much as we think. If that's what holding you back — the fear of what other people will think and notice — then think a little more about just doing it.”

People feel bad when they can't meet their obligations, but that rarely seems to top their list of regrets. Why? Well for one thing, people are aware of their obligations and generally take steps to see that they meet them. When they don't, they are more prepared for the consequences, which are both obvious and concrete. And afterwards, people usually make amends as best they can. But a dream not pursued? How can you make amends for that?

“To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful…” Gilovich adds, “but for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”

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