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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.

“When people realize 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.”


“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,” said Gilovich in a statement. “The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you.”

People are quicker to fix those potholes because they are seen as more urgent than goals and aspirations; paying that phone bill may seem important now, but you might regret not asking that girl out later on in life.

The solution is surprisingly simple. Gilovich says don’t wait around for inspiration, “just do it”. Even more, forget about what others might think.

“The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction,” Gilovich explained in the statement. “It’s ‘I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.’”


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