The definition of Regret in the Oxford English Dictionary is:
“Feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that one has done or failed to do)”
When was the last time you sat down and asked yourself:
“What hopes, dreams and plans do I have?”
“What does my ideal future look like?”
“What is my purpose in life?”
“What do I really want from life, love and my career?”
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.
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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
Psychologist Tom Gilovich and his colleague Shai Davidai have found in a new research piece “The Ideal Road Not Taken” that people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfil their hopes, goals and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfil their duties, obligations and responsibilities.
Published in Emotion, the researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, making a distinction between “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), before asking them to list, name and categorise their regrets.
Across the different studies, the participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72 per cent vs. 28 per cent).
They mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far (57 per cent vs. 43 per cent).
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 per cent vs. 24 per cent mentioning an ought-self regret).
“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 us 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. None of us are perfect. We are all going to make mistakes. We can often learn from our mistakes, and take actions to rectify problems.
Many mistakes can be fixed or apologized for. It is the lack of action, the lack of courage to follow through that can haunt us for a long time.
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.
You didn’t learn that instrument you always wanted to because you were worried you wouldn’t be good enough. You didn’t continue your education because your friends were getting jobs.
Fear of taking that first step. Fear of following your dreams. Fear of pursuing your purpose.
A lot of people wait for inspiration and confidence before getting started. They wait and wait and never actually take that first step.
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 you cannot risk, you cannot grow. If you cannot grow, you cannot become your best. If you cannot become your best, you cannot be happy. If you cannot be happy, what else matters?” – Dr. David Viscott
The things we want to do in our life don’t go away. The extraordinary results we want to achieve in our life, in our relationships, in our career, in our health and wellbeing, and in our purpose are driven by courage and faith.
If we don’t fearlessly pursue these things, we start blaming ourselves for not taking action and the regret compounds.
The Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda
But if we 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. To avoid the thing that can undermine our living a life well lived – regret.
When you make a decision to focus on creating your ideal future, to create a life with no regrets 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 through.
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 wished 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
5 Most Important Things in Your Life (You Shouldn’t Ignore)
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. Become the Person You Truly Could Be
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 have a number of things we want to do in our lives, yet many of these things never see the light of day. We aspire to do things, to achieve, to have success, to build great relationships but we hold ourselves back.
We worry that we don’t have the right information to make the right decision. We’re fearful that we’re actually good enough. We’re scared of the changes that could happen in our lives so take the safe route instead.
This leads to regret, self-blame and self-doubt. But it is within us to create that amazing life we want. To see more. Do more. Learn more. Travel more.
It means not worrying about what others think. Not worrying about who will judge us.
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 forwards.
“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. Not Chasing Your Dreams
If you don’t have clarity on your bigger purpose, dreams and goals, it’s very easy to get sucked into daily life.
Sucked into the long hours at work, the same friends, the same activities, the same routines, the same habits.
There is no growth, no change, no transformation. Rather than pursuing your dreams and growing every day you become stuck.
When you have a clear direction for your life, when your priorities are top of mind you are clearer on the steps you can take to move forward.
You know where you are. You know what is most important. You know where you are going.
You are living a life of purposeful, passionate action. You have a lot more fun. You are happier. You are more confident. You are learning and growing every day.
You fully trust yourself, so are willing to take more risks in pursuit of your dreams. Start setting you goals today.
3. Live Your Life, Not the Life of Someone Else
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
Your life is your life and your journey is your journey. 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 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 am I living?”
Run your own race on your own terms to avoid feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that lead to inaction and regret.
4. Starting Tomorrow
We always think we have more time than we do. The reality is that we don’t. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so the best thing you can do is start making a chance today.
When you are setting goals, the goals you set are the ideal you in the future. The best way to create that ideal future is to start now, in this present moment, not tomorrow.
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. It could be anything. The point is to focus on the present moment.
What have you been putting off that you could focus on right now?
Do you want to get healthier?
Do you want to exercise more?
Do you want to learn a language?
Do you want to spend more time with someone important?
Do you want to get back in touch with old friends?
Do you want to be a better parent/husband/wife/son/daughter?
It could be anything. The point is to simply get started and take action on what matters to you.
5. Missing 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?
I would argue that freeing up your time for rejuvenation and focused time with your family improves your work performance, but that’s another article.
The longer and longer 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 are also relying on you to be there.
Making it up to your family for the long hours can be a constant struggle. Missing family dinners in exchange for ‘quality time’ at the weekend is a hard one to justify.
It’s really about taking control of your schedule to ensure you are there for both the everyday and the moments that matter in the hearts and minds of those people closest to you.
This reminds me of a story, excerpted from Gary Keller’s book The One Thing:
One evening, a young boy hopped up on his father’s lap and whispered, “Dad, we don’t spend enough time together.” The father, who dearly loved his son, knew in his heart this was true and replied, “You’re right and I’m so sorry. But I promise I’ll make it up to you. Since tomorrow is Saturday, why don’t we spend the entire day together? Just you and me!” It was a plan, and the boy went to bed that night with a smile on his face, envisioning the day, excited about the adventurous possibilities with his Pops.
The next morning the father rose earlier than usual. He wanted to make sure he could still enjoy his ritual cup of coffee with the morning paper before his son awoke, wound up and ready to go. Lost in thought reading the business section, he was caught by surprise when suddenly his son pulled the newspaper down and enthusiastically shouted, “Dad, I’m up. Let’s play!”
The father, although thrilled to see his son and eager to start the day together, found himself guiltily craving just a little more time to finish his morning routine. Quickly racking his brain, he hit upon a promising idea. He grabbed his son, gave him a huge hug, and announced that their first game would be to put a puzzle together, and when that was done, “we’ll head outside to play for the rest of the day.”
Earlier in his reading, he had seen a full-page ad with a picture of the world. He quickly found it, tore it into little pieces, and spread them out on the table. He found some tape for his son and said, “I want to see how fast you can put this puzzle together.” The boy enthusiastically dove right in, while his father, confident that he had now bought some extra time, buried himself back in his paper.
Within minutes, the boy once again yanked down his father’s newspaper and proudly announced, “Dad, I’m done!” The father was astonished. For what lay in front of him — whole, intact, and complete — was the picture of the world, back together as it was in the ad and not one piece out of place. In a voice mixed with parental pride and wonder, the father asked, “How on earth did you do that so fast?”
The young boy beamed. “It was easy, Dad! I couldn’t do it at first and I started to give up, it was so hard. But then I dropped a piece on the floor, and because it’s a glass-top table, when I looked up I saw that there was a picture of a man on the other side. That gave me an idea!
“When I put the man together, the world just fell into place.”
So, in the end, we often truly regret the chance and opportunities we didn’t take.
However, if you know what you’re going after, then you’ll find a way to reach it.
Too often, we don’t focus on and spend enough time figuring out how we can live the life that we want. This leads to recriminations, self-doubt, blame and regrets.
It’s not always easy, but if you know where you are headed (your ideal future), have set specific goals and are committed to getting there it’s important to take the time to be clear about what you stand for.
To have clarity around what and who are most important to you, what is 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 About Living a Fulfilling Life
- How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life
- 20 Things Life Is Too Short to Worry About (And What to Do Instead)
- 7 Steps to Start Living Your Dream Life Right Now
- How to Find the Purpose of Life and Start Living a Fulfilling Life
Featured photo credit: Tom Ezzatkhah via unsplash.com
|||^||Oxford Dictionary: Regret|
|||^||Cornell Edu: Woulda, coulda, shoulda: the haunting regret of failing our ideal selves|
|||^||Emotion: The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets.|
|||^||Bonnie Ware: Regrets of the Dying|
|||^||Emma Freud: What Is Your Biggest Regret?|