Results of a recent series of six studies suggest that we are most likely to regret not pursuing our dreams when we had the opportunity.
What do you regret most in life?
Is it something that you DID do or something that you DIDN’T do but wish you had?
Research from way back in 1994 tells us that, typically speaking, we regret inaction more deeply and for longer than we do action.
To really get to grips with what this all means, we need to define two things:
Ideal self: the vision we have in our heads of the person we could (or could have) become if we were to follow our dreams. The person we want (or wanted) to be.
Ought self: the vision we have in our heads of the person we are (or were) expected to be based on perceived norms and our personal responsibilities and duties to others.
To help differentiate between the two, think of your “ideal self” as a creation wholly of your own mind and wishes, whereas your “ought self” is largely a creation of outside influences that are superimposed onto you.
Your ideal self involves things you wish to do. You ought self involves things you feel you should do.
Now to the science…
The Study Results In Plain English
Conducted by Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University and Shai Davidai at The New School for Social Research, the six studies were designed to evaluate regret (both real and imagined).
At the beginning of most of the studies, the difference between ideal-self regrets and ought-self regrets was explained to participants prior to questioning.
- When asked which type of regret they felt more often, 72% stated that it was those related to their ideal self.
- When asked to list their regrets so far in life, 57% of the responses given related to the ideal self.
- When it came to their biggest regrets in life, 76% of participants gave an ideal-self regret as their answer.
So, regrets related to our ideal selves were not only greater in number, but they were felt more often.
The regrets felt with the greatest intensity were also more likely to be those related to our unfulfilled dreams or ambitions (ideal-self regrets).
But why do ideal-self regrets cause us more anguish? The researchers designed three of the six studies to look for clues.
In the first, participants were given a series of hypothetical ideal-self regrets and ought-self regrets. They suggested that people are more likely to take some form of action when it comes to ought-self regrets than ideal-self regrets.
That action might be shifting one’s mindset to find the positives in the situation or actually doing something to try to right the wrong in some way, shape, or form.
In another study, participants were split into two groups. Those in one group were asked to describe an actual ideal-self regret they had, and the others were asked to describe an actual ought-self regret.
They were also asked what steps they had taken (if any) to address the situation or cope with the fallout.
Those describing an actual ought-self regret were found to have acted with more urgency and taken more steps to deal with the regret.
In a third study, participants were again split into two groups. One was asked to describe a regret that they had resolved (practically and/or mentally) while the other was asked to describe a regret that was still unresolved.
When discussing a resolved regret, participants were more likely to state an ought-self regret. In contrast, those asked to talk about an unresolved regret were more likely to state an ideal-self regret.
In other words, the results of these 3 studies show that we are less likely to take action when it comes to unfulfilled goals, dreams, or ambitions relating to our ideal self.
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That’s Great, But What Does It Mean For Me?
Based on these findings, what can you do to avoid forming new regrets over the remainder of your lifetime?
The simple answer is to act upon your dreams. Seize the moment; recognize when an opportunity presents itself, and grab it with both hands.
Part of this will involve worrying less about what others might think of you. Don’t allow the judgment of others to stop you from being your authentic self and setting the goals that matter most to you.
It also means putting yourself first more often. Rather than acting in a way that you think others want you to or expect you to, do what makes you feel happy.
Aside from responsibilities you may have to children or other dependents, you don’t have to conform to the role that society has deemed suitable for you
You should also become comfortable with risk. Accept that reaching out beyond your comfort zone to make your dreams a reality will involve risk.
Whether that’s the risk of a relationship not working out, the risk of a business venture collapsing, or the risk of spending your savings travelling the world and not having enough left for a comfortable retirement.
Remember, the first studied cited above found that people most often regret the things they didn’t do rather than those they did.
So don’t keep putting your dreams off until they’re no longer a realistic possibility. Put plans in place now and act upon them in order to fulfil your ambitions.
And what of those ought-self regrets?
Well, the biggest thing you can do to avoid them is to alter your mindset and ask why they should be regrets in the first place.
After all, our ought self is an ideal we try to live up to that is largely dictated by outside expectations of us. It’s the responsibilities we have to others and the duties assigned to us by societal norms.
Again, once you’ve taken your responsibilities to children and other dependents out of the equation, you are largely free to ignore your ought self (assuming, of course, that neglecting particular duties does not cause harm to others or society as a whole).
Your ought self is not your authentic self. Once you accept this, it makes little sense to have ought-self regrets. Why would you regret NOT being inauthentic?
If you want to go against the expectations of your family, your peers, and the wider world, do it.
Want to live an off-grid vegan lifestyle where you grow your own food and reject the whole concept of money and wealth? Do it.
If that’s what you really want, you won’t regret NOT being an office clerk doing a 9 to 5 grind only to spend every working hour wishing you were somewhere else.
Disclaimer: the second half of this article that deals with what the study results mean for your typical man or woman is my opinion only.
It is based upon my interpretation of the findings and reflects my own personal views about how we should be living our lives.
The study authors proved more cautious in their analysis, stating that how you should act to avoid regrets will depend upon whether you place more value on your ideal self or your ought self.
Before making any drastic life changes, you should consider whether your interpretation matches mine.
It is worth remembering that some people in the study were more affected emotionally by ought-self regrets. You might be too.