By Ray Williams
February 19, 2021
Most of us have regrets about something in our lives. And it’s very common for those near the end of their lives. There are conflicting views as to whether having these regrets have a purpose. Is it possible to have no regrets? Which regrets are more powerful—the ones that involve mistakes we have made, or the ones that involve things we didn’t do?
What are Regrets?
Janet Landman, author of Regret: Persistence of the Possible, defines regret as a “more or less painful cognitive and emotional state of feeling sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses, transgressions, shortcomings or mistakes. It is an experience of felt-reason or reasoned-emotion. The regretted matters may be sins of commission as well as sins of omission; they may range from the voluntary to the uncontrollable and accidental; they may be actually executed deeds or entirely mental ones committed by oneself or by another person or group; they may be moral or legal transgressions or morally and legally neutral.”
Some research seems to suggest, therefore, that a definition difference is that of action vs inaction. The data seems to suggest that people who regret not taking action were more negatively affected than by the actions they took which they regret. Also, regrets which involve actions or decisions made at a specific choice point in time should be distinguished from inactions, or missed opportunities, which were more likely to to result from an ongoing, unfocused pattern.
Thomas Giloviqh and Vitoria Husted Medvec argue in their published study that there is a document the importance of psychological processes that decrease the pain of regrettable action over time and show how a person’s cognitive processes impact the difference.
Across six studies, the pair present new evidence, published in the journal Emotion, that our most enduring regrets concern not living up to our ideal selves (i.e. not becoming the person we wanted to be), as opposed to not living according to our “ought selves” (the person we should have been based on our duties and responsibilities).
The researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, including students, but mostly members of the public recruited on Amazon’s survey website. For most of the studies, the researchers started out telling their recruits the difference between regrets concerning the “ideal self” (not achieving goals they had set for themselves, their dreams and ambitions) and “the ought self” (not meeting the norms and rules they had for themselves or fulfilling their obligations to others), before asking them to list, name and categorise their regrets.
Across the different studies, the participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72 per cent vs. 28 per cent); they mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far (57 per cent vs. 43 per cent); and when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self (76 per cent vs. 24 per cent mentioning an ought-self regret).
Gilovich and Davidai next tested their belief that a key reason why ideal-self regrets are more enduring is that we are less likely to take practical and psychological action at the time to repair these regrets, compared with ought-self regrets.
For instance, presented with hypothetical ideal-self regrets (such as forsaken dreams or romantic interests not pursued) and hypothetical ought-self regrets (like failing to visit a dying relative or infidelity), participants said a typical person was more likely to take action, psychological and practical, to repair the ought-self regrets, such as by finding a silver lining or doing something to dampen the regret, than to repair ideal-self regrets.
In a follow-up study, participants described actual regrets they had, either ideal-self related or ought-self related, and said what they’d done to cope with them. Those asked to describe ought-self regrets rated them as having been more urgent and said they’d taken more steps to cope, including changing their behaviour, rectifying the situation or undoing it entirely.
Finally, the researchers switched things up and asked 157 more participants to recall a resolved regret or an unresolved regret (“unfinished business”) – they found those asked to write about the former were more likely to describe an ought-self regret, while those asked to write about the latter were more likely to describe an ideal-self regret.
Gilovich and Davidai and are not saying that the only reason that ideal-self regrets are more enduring is because we are less likely to attend to them and resolve them, but they think this is a key factor in why they are generally more bothersome and come more readily to mind. Other possible reasons (not tested in the current research) are that our ideal selves are simply less obtainable than our ought selves, more abstract, and less context dependent, meaning regrets pertaining to them are triggered more often.
“Our work is the first to show that people’s most prominent life regrets more often involve failures to live up to their ideal self than their ought self,” the researchers concluded. And they added the work “… is the first to document the role played by behavioural and psychological coping mechanisms in people’s tendency to regret their failures to live up to their ideal selves.”
The new results are backed up by anecdotal accounts from patients nearing the end of their lives, described in a book by palliative nurse Bronnie Ware in 2013: “When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled,” she wrote. “Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices that they had made, or not made.”
Can we take any practical insights from the latest findings? Gilovich and Davidai urge caution, suggesting that the most advisable way to live will depend on how much weight you place on your ought self vs. your ideal self.
If you place a premium on your ought self, you “would be wise to minimise [your] regrets by thinking twice before forging ahead [and seizing the moment]” they suggest. On the other hand, “if one is an adventurous soul guided by her ideal self, she might indeed end up happier by seizing the day and not looking back. As we have shown in this research, a person focused on her ideal self is more likely to lose sleep over her ‘wouldas’ and ‘couldas’ than her ‘shouldas’.”
Giloviqh and Medvec conclude the following:
- More compensatory actions are taken to ameliorate regrettable actions.
- The passage of time brings an increase in retrospection, and belief that the failure to act was inexcusable.
- The consequences of regrettable actions tend to be finite; the consequences of regrettable inaction tend to be psychologically infinite.
- Regrettable failures to act tend to more memorable and enduring than regrettable actions.
Some people argue that we should “regret nothing” or that they “wouldn’t do things differently,” if they could live their lives over again. While not doubting the sincerity of those beliefs, that’s hard to accept at face value, Giloviqh and Medvec argue. First, living a life where you haven’t made mistakes is either extremely difficult to accomplish, or the person is not telling the truth. If the mistakes we made resulted in harm to others, society, the environment, or even ourselves, there’s a good reason have regrets. With that reason is the realization that other choices could have been made with less negative results. Similarly, failing to take action in a situation that may have resulted in harm could also be a situation where regret is understandable, and another choice could have been made.
Other research studies show that we do have short-lived regrets for our mistakes, but usually within two weeks. But the regrets for things we didn’t do, the missed opportunities? Those can last for years.
What Are the Most Common Regrets?
In the various studies of people who are dying, there are some common themes. For example, Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, describes the following regrets as being in common among her patients:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
A common thread that runs through these five regrets of the dying is that there are all omissions (things that were not done), as opposed to commissions (mistakes we have made for which we may also feel guilt).
Neal Roese published a study in which he examined this question, and concluded the following most common regrets are mostly related to relationships. Roese noted as well, that women had most frequent regrets about romance, whereas men had work regrets. He also concluded that regrets were balanced between omissions and commissions.
What Actions Should We Take to Eliminate or Reduce Our Regrets?
The answer to that question depends on whether the regret is related to an act of commission on our part, or an act of omission, as previously mentioned. Regret for behavior or actions we may have taken in the past where harm was done to others serves a healthy purpose if we subsequently take responsibility for our actions, and where feasible, do something to make amends to those injured. In that way, we are taking responsibility for the present, and not being mired in the past.
The research seems to indicate that people engage in strategies to deal with regret involving action more readily than regrets about inaction.
Often, people who harbor regrets of omission think they would do things differently if presented with the same scenario, decision, or choice again. But this is faulty logic. First, we can’t revisit the past and have a do-over. Second, if a future similar situation arose, it would never be completely the same as there are too many variables to replicate. Finally, ruminating or obsessing about a regret of omission assumes 20/20 retroactive vision—that we could see then what we see now—which is not possible. We often make the choices and decisions in life at the time given what we know. The focus of dealing productively with the consequences of our choices and decisions is just as important as the decision or choice itself.
What to do About Regrets in Life: Ten Tips
- Learn that it’s oaky to make mistakes in life, providing you learn from them and forgive yourself for making them.
- Take responsibility for the mistakes you’ve made that have caused harm and commit to making amends where possible.
- Learn how to embrace mindful acceptances of what is. This means accepting that you can’t change the past and must live in the present.
- Accept your feelings of regret which may include sadness or guilt, or even anger. Don’t try to suppress or block those feelings.
- Be grateful for the things you have in life rather than regretting the things you don’t have, or missed out one.
- Accept that life can be unpredictable, and that you will always be faced with choices. You can’t control all the variables.
- Let go of a victim mentality if you believe your regret is can be blamed on someone or something else.
- Let go of the need to compare yourself to others (their successes or good fortune).
- Give up the “what if I had….” dialogue with yourself. That’s living in the past.
- Be clear about your life purpose and and commit to living true to that purpose each moment of each day.
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Read my latest book: I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want To Go, available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.