It’s common to think about what the most important things in life are. We all seek to align ourselves with things that truly matter and that will ultimately add to our happiness and fulfillment.
How we set ourselves up to create a life well-lived versus a life half-lived is often more about the regrets we have over the things we failed to do rather than the things we actually did.
We regret more not becoming our ideal selves, or the person we truly wanted to be. We regret living an unfulfilled life. We regret living in fear and not having the courage to focus on the things and people that truly matter most.
What is important in life, really? With that question in mind, we’ll take a look at the things most people regret not pursuing and how to live a life grounded in what really matters
What We Regret Most
“I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.” -Jeff Bezos
Research has found that people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals, and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations, and responsibilities.
Published in Emotion, the researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, making a distinction between the “ideal self” (not achieving goals they had set for themselves, their dreams, and ambitions) and “the ought self” (not meeting the norms and rules they had for themselves or fulfilling their obligations to others). They asked participants to list, name, and categorize their regrets.
Across the different studies, the participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72% vs. 28%). Furthermore, when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self (76% vs. 24%).
“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.” – Tom Gilovich
Let’s ponder a couple of questions:
What is it that you currently regret most about your life?
What do you most not want to regret about your life when your time is up?
People regret their inactions more than their actions in the long term. Not falling in love, not hanging out with good friends, and not working toward a healthy body are just a couple of common themes.
Maybe you never started writing that book despite your love for writing. Perhaps you haven’t set up your own dream business because you were afraid of what people would think if you actually tried.
The thing is, taking action is that first step to ensure you avoid regrets. Confidence comes with taking action. Making a commitment to follow through and then having the courage to do it builds the momentum.
If we don’t fearlessly pursue these things, we start blaming ourselves for not taking action and the regret compounds.
The Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda
If you are clear on our purpose and priorities in life, you can create the personal power necessary to push through, and take action on the things that matter most.
When you make a decision to focus on the most important things in life, you’ll move from “woulda, coulda, shoulda” to “I lived a life worth living” and “I made a difference.”
To get through the hardest journey, we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping. – Chinese Proverb
Bonnie Ware’s 2012 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying tells us much about living a life to minimize regrets. Ware spent many years in palliative care, looking after patients who had gone home to die. When she questioned these patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, a number of common themes came up.
The five most common themes were, in descending order:
- I wish I’d had the courage to life a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I’d stayed in touch with friends.
- I wish that I’d let myself be happier.
The most common regret, by far, was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.” According to Ware:
“Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices that they made, or not made.”
These themes are similar to the ones that came through when Guardian journalist Emma Freud asked the question on Twitter “What is your biggest regret?”
Being held back by fear, self-blame and bad choices around love, learning, and loss were the most frequent responses.
The most frequent regrets focused around:
- Not doing the right thing/being there when someone died
- Not speaking up
- Not pursuing higher levels of education
- Fear of following their dreams
- Unrequited or non-pursuit of love
- Self-blame around anxiety
- Taking too long to make a change
The 5 Most Important Things in Life
Through all of my research, speaking to clients, friends, family and my own self-analysis of regrets in my life, there are 5 core things in your life that you’ll probably regret not pursuing if you don’t do something about them today.
A lot of the other regrets you may have are a by-product of not getting the core things right.
1. Becoming the Best Version of Yourself
We often let doubt and fear hold us back from living a life of purpose and passion. This stops us from constantly growing and becoming a better version of ourselves. We forget to cultivate good health and relationships with family members or practice self-care for better mental health.
We have a number of things we want to do in our lives, yet many of these things never see the light of day. We worry that we don’t have the right information to make the right decision. We’re scared of the changes that could happen in our lives and so take the safe route instead.
This leads to regret, self-blame, and self-doubt. However, it is within us to create that amazing life we want. It means not worrying about what others think or how we will be judged.
Be fully present, surround yourself with the right people that cheer you on, have more fun, and take more risks. No matter how many times you fall you get back up and keep moving forward.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain
2. Chasing Your Dreams
If you don’t have clarity on your bigger purpose, dreams, and goals, it’s very easy to get sucked into an unfulfilling routine made up of long hours at work, bland relationships, and unhealthy habits.
There is no growth, change, or transformation in this case. Rather than pursuing your dreams and growing every day, you become stuck.
When you have a clear direction for your life and your priorities are top of mind, you are clearer on the steps you can take to move forward.
You are living a life of purposeful, passionate action. You fully trust yourself, so you are willing to take more risks in pursuit of your dreams. Start setting your goals today.
3. Not Living Someone Else’s Life
Comparing yourself to others and living someone else’s life can only lead to bitterness, self-doubt, inaction, and heartache.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” –Oscar Wilde
We should make changes in our life because we want to, rather than because of the actions or reactions of someone else. Stay away from negative environments and negative people that can poison your progress, erode your confidence, and cause self-doubt to creep in. Surround yourself, instead, with lots of people that inspire you.
Many of us get sucked into living the life that we think a good son or daughter should live, or what our parents expect of us.
We often make key life and business decisions because we think it’s what will make our parents happy. We believe our happiness is derived through their happiness.
It’s only later, when we become dissatisfied with our lives, that we start to question whose life we’re really living and if we’re truly focusing on the important things in life.
4. Starting Tomorrow
We always think we have more time than we do. In reality, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so the best thing you can do is start making a change today.
Spending just five minutes now doing something significant, in this present moment, could help you move one step closer to your dreams.
It could be a decision you make, a conversation you have, something you read, etc. The point is to focus on the present moment.
For example, if you want to travel more, you can make a plan to save money each month for a big vacation. In the next couple of weeks, look up possible destinations and make an itinerary once you choose one. With each small step, you’ll get closer to achieving your goal, so start today, even if it’s just by creating a plan or timeline.
You can learn more about creating an action plan here.
5. Spending Time With Family and Friends
One of the biggest investments you can make in your life is to free up more of your time to spend with the people that matter most.
This is often easier said than done. How do you balance your work commitments with being home for dinner with your family or spending more time with your children?
Long hours at work can cause worry and stress. You’re worried about “not putting the hours in at work” and creating issues with your boss and co-workers, but at the same time your family is also relying on you to be there.
It’s important to take control of your schedule to ensure you are there for both the everyday and the moments that matter in the hearts and minds of the people closest to you.
One study of 309,000 people found that “lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%. This is likely because social connection helps us reduce stress hormones and increase feel-good hormones that keep us happy and healthy.
The most important things in life are often the most important people in your life, so make it a priority to spend time with them.
Too often, we don’t focus on and spend enough time figuring out how we can live the happy life that we want. This leads to recriminations, self-doubt, blame, and regrets.
Create clarity around what and who is most important to you and your purpose, and then take the courageous steps to focus only on those things that truly matter.
That way, you’re far more likely to create a life well-lived, rather than one full of regrets.
More on Living a Fulfilling Life
Featured photo credit: Katie Treadway via unsplash.com