How To Avoid What Psychologists Call The Most "Haunting" Life Regret

Take the job. Buy the ticket. Kiss the girl. Miss Nuchwara Tongrit/Shutterstock

Take a moment to reflect back on your life. Have you followed your dreams or taken the path of least resistance to dutifully fulfill responsibilities? Of those things that come to mind, which is your biggest regret? 

If you’re like the majority of people, you might feel yourself regretting not living up to the person you always dreamed of becoming.

According to a Cornell Study, nearly three-quarters of people regret not living up to their ideal self (the person they wanted to be) rather than the person they “ought” to be. In short, people are more haunted by not fulfilling their dreams, goals, and aspirations than by not fulfilling their duties, obligations, and responsibilities.

Published in the journal Emotion, study author Tom Gilovich builds on previous research that found people regret the things they haven't done rather than those they have. This time around, his team surveyed hundreds of patients and online respondents over the course of six studies. In it, they described three elements that make up a person’s sense of self: actual (attributes a person believes they have), ideal (hopes, goals, aspirations, and wishes), and ought (duties, obligations, and responsibilities). They then asked participants to list and categorize their biggest regrets based on those descriptions.

The results might surprise you: More than half mentioned ideal-self regrets more than ought-self regrets, and when asked about their single biggest regret, 76 percent said it was not fulfilling their ideal self. In 2013, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware compiled a book of anecdotal accounts from patients nearing the end of their lives that said statements to the same extent.

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