What is it you'll regret most about your life when your time is up? Failure to fulfil your duty and obligations? Or the failure to follow your dreams? New research from Cornell University suggests our biggest regrets have nothing to do with our responsibilities in life.
Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões
According to psychologist Tom Gilovich, lead author on "The Ideal Road Not Taken", published in the journal Emotion, the regrets that bother us the most involve failing to live up to our "ideal selves".
Basically, we aren't as bothered by the mistakes we've made or the things we ought to have done as we are bothered by never becoming the person we truly wanted to be. Gilovich explains:
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. The "ought" regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they're behind you.
All of this is based on the self-discrepancy theory of the the three selves: The actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self.
The actual self is what a person believes themselves to be now, based on current attributes and abilities. The ideal self is comprised of the attributes and abilities they'd like to possess one day - in essence, their goals, hopes and aspirations. The ought self is who someone believes they should have been according to their obligations and responsibilities.
In terms of regrets, the failure of the ought self is more "I could have done that better", and the failure of the ideal self is more "I never became that person I wanted to become".
As Gilovich's previous research has suggested, people regret their inactions more than their actions in the long term. In the moment, a mistake makes you feel a great deal of regret, but you get over it quickly as it melts away with a typical "live and learn" mentality. After all, nobody's perfect, right?
Gilovich explains that people aren't as bothered by the failed actions of their ought self because it's easier to take actions to rectify such problems. Most mistakes can be fixed, or at least apologised for.
But you can't fix what was never done in the first place. You see, inaction, the utter lack of trying, is what will truly haunt you.
Maybe you never gave playing music a chance, despite your love for it. Perhaps you hid away every story idea you ever wrote down because you were afraid of what people would think if you actually tried. Or maybe you never found the courage to tell that special person you care about them, so they went about their lives without you.
Gilovich says that a lot of people wait for inspiration to come before they try to achieve their personal goals, but you don't need that. The need for inspiration is only an excuse, and a lazy one. If you want to avoid such troubling regrets, the remedy is clear: Take action while you can.
This isn't to say you should forego your duties and responsibilities in pursuit of your dreams. It's merely a reminder that the things you want to do in your life don't go away.
Sure, we get older and our priorities and responsibilities change, but we still have things we want to be when we grow up. We all have a perfect version of ourselves in our mind's eye, and while we will never be able to achieve every single thing we envision, we can't even begin to approach our ideal selves without, well, doing something.
You have problems, I have advice. This advice isn't sugar-coated - in fact, it's sugar-free, and may even be a little bitter. Welcome to Tough Love.
So, what does your ideal self look like? It might be a bit fuzzy and it may change over time, but it's there - look harder. Once you have a general idea, make a concerted effort to try, to fail, to learn what you like, to learn what you don't, and to gradually shape that vision of your ideal self into a realistically achievable, step-by-step goal.
Remember, your ideal self should be someone you aspire to be, not a looming "woulda, coulda, shoulda" spectre who haunts you on your deathbed.