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The most haunting regrets aren't about what we've done, research finds

Here's how to live a more regret-free life.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY
Woman showing regret
Regrets come in a variety of unpleasant packages.Getty Images

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When palliative nurse Bronnie Ware asked her dying patients what they regretted most about their lives, one common theme emerged.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” they told her over and over, Ware wrote in her book, “The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying.”

“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 noted.

Regrets come in a variety of unpleasant packages, but it turns out people’s biggest, most enduring misgivings when looking back at their lives have to do with not being all they could have been and not living up to their ideal selves, a recent study published in the journal Emotion confirmed.

These “ideal-related regrets” — like settling for a stable career instead of following a passion, marrying a “safe” partner instead of pursuing a truly special love interest, never opening a business or traveling around the world — were more painful than regrets about not living up to responsibilities.

Yet, people tended to put off action to realize their dreams, leading to a “slowly accumulating disappointment,” the study noted.

“When it comes to our ideal-related regrets, we let them linger… a year goes by, we don’t do anything. Two, three, 20 years go by and that small increment of negative builds up to a big feeling of regret when, unfortunately, a lot of times it’s too late to actually do something,” Shai Davidai, the lead author and an assistant psychology professor at The New School for Social Research, told TODAY.

To understand why, it important to realize your perception of yourself is a bit divided, previous research has found. There’s the actual self — the traits you think you have; the ought self, which is concerned with duties, rules and what you should do; and the ideal self, or your hopes, goals, aspirations and dreams.

The "ought you" and the ideal you usually have different agendas.

“There’s often a tension between those two things. Our goals and dreams push us one way; and then our responsibilities and duties pull us another way,” Davidai said.

Fear of change

Regrets that come from not living up to responsibilities — like cheating on a spouse or not being there for a friend in crisis — elicit “hot” and intense emotions that prompt people to want to take action, make amends or change their behavior, the study noted.

But regrets that come from not realizing a dream are never strong enough in the moment to compel us to do something about them, Davidai said. Inertia wins, fear of change takes over and the status quo rules.

Years later, when people look back, they kick themselves for not doing more. To make things worse, all the reasons that seemed compelling at the time for not taking action seem much less convincing down the road, the study noted.

Hundreds of people of different ages and diverse backgrounds were surveyed for the paper.

How to avoid the biggest regrets

Given the findings, should people be encouraged to relentlessly pursue their dreams and aspirations? The study authors were surprisingly guarded, recommending caution.

“What I don’t want to happen is that people use this research as some sort of impetus to just following their dreams, quitting their jobs and being [irresponsible] to their friends and family,” Davidai said. “There’s an importance here of making sure that we do uphold our citizenry, responsibilities and duties.”

That being said, these tips can help us take action:

Realize that everyone has regrets: Knowing you’re not alone is already helpful; so is being aware of the biggest kinds of regrets so that you don't just ignore them.

Don’t wait for inspiration: “Put the lever a little bit more towards action versus inaction,” Davidai advised. Start to think about regrets about unfulfilled dreams more like ought-related regrets, which people tend to immediately deal with. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll just find yourself waiting, he added. If you take small action every day, you’ll actually achieve something.

Don’t worry about what others think: People don’t notice us and think about us as much as we think they do, in what’s known as the spotlight effect. If that’s holding you back from fulfilling your dream, think about another top regret of the dying in Ware’s book: “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Think from the perspective of your older self: Spend a day taking the view as if you were 90, advised Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University. What would you want your biography to include?

"It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way," Ware wrote. "From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."

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