Think back on the past week. What’s your biggest regret? Did you tell a joke that fell completely flat, or walk into the wrong bathroom by mistake? Now think back longer. We’re guessing that if you’re recollecting your regrets from the more distant past, most of them aren’t embarrassing things you did or said. Chances are, most of them are things you never did at all.
Here’s a scenario adapted from Daniel Gilbert’s book “Stumbling Into Happiness”: Imagine you win a million dollars. You get the phone call, freak out, tell all your friends, invest all the money in the next big company — and then promptly lose everything. Okay, rewind. This time, you just won a million dollars, but you missed the phone call and they give the money to somebody else instead. In both cases, you made a mistake. But which one will you regret the most? Although research suggests that most of us will think that publicly failing by investing poorly is more embarrassing, countless studies show that it’s the mistakes of inaction that niggle our brains for years. In other words, as years go by, regrets like “I wish I’d answered that call” are a lot more common than ones like “I wish I hadn’t blown all that money.”
There’s actually a predictable curve of regret. In the short-term, your brain tends to focus on what might be called “active mistakes” like foolish spending while feeling pretty confident about its decisions not to take action. But as time goes by, most of those embarrassing or regretful actions you took tend to be forgotten, while the times that you did nothing start to loom much larger. Stanford psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman studied a group of people (dubbed “Terman’s Termites”) over their lifetimes and found that when his participants were in their 80s, their most common regrets centered on sentiments such as “I wish I’d gone to college” and “I wish I’d been more assertive.” It’s clear — doing nothing is more likely to feel like the right thing in the short run, but will come back to haunt you in the future.
There’s another way that regrets are complicated by the ways our lives play out. You can think of it in terms of your “ought self” versus your “ideal self.” Your ought self is your imagined future of how things are “supposed” to go — maybe you picture yourself getting a stable job, getting married, raising children, retiring. You know, the things that would be expected of you. Your ideal self, on the other hand, is the imagined self who does what you really want to be doing. That person is a playwright, or a professional surfer, or a successful scientist. Obviously, there’s some reconciliation to be made between the ought and ideal selves. But interestingly, it’s regrets about our ideal selves that really bother us.
Participants in a study published in Emotion demonstrated this quite clearly. 72 percent reported experiencing regrets pertaining to their ideal self (“I wish I’d finished my book.”) more than those pertaining to their ought self (“I wish I’d asked for more raises.”). 57 percent included more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets on a list of their biggest regrets, and 76 percent named an ideal-self regret their biggest regret in life. The researchers think this discrepancy might be caused by the fact that we are more likely to try to fix ought-self regrets, whether by taking action to repair them or justifying them to ourselves; in a follow-up study, participants given two hypothetical regret situations were more likely to assuage the pain of ought-self regrets by coming up with actionable plans, or simply finding the silver lining of the situation.
The researchers also hypothesize that this pattern of behavior stems from the fact that ought-self regrets are often more immediate and context-driven, whereas ideal-self regrets are less obtainable and tend to be context-free. That is to say, if you regret not selling your house when you ought to have, you have the context of knowing the housing market at the time, understanding of your motivations, and the knowledge that this mishap didn’t derail your life entirely.
But if you regret not becoming the “Donkey Kong” champion you always knew you could be, you’re just seeing the ideal part, and none of the hours of practice, inevitable defeats, and seedy backroom dealings. Just remember: Losing hit points stings in the short term, but it’s the barrel you didn’t jump over that will haunt you forever.
Check out my related post: Got a tough decision to make?