The Narcissus in All of Us

Reflections on the self, personality, and what makes you, "you."

The biggest regret of your life

On avoiding irrevocable mistakes

Imagine you have a dream tonight in which you time travel into the future, to a point near the end of your life. In this future, you meet the older version of yourself, and soon find yourself asking this question: "So...If you could live your life all over again, what's the one thing you would do differently?"

Your older self considers this and looks off in the distance, thinking. Then, just as you're about to get your response, you wake up from the dream.

How do you think your future self would (will) answer this question? Could you benefit from knowing what your biggest regret might be?

In real life, the closest we can get to this kind of information is by asking someone else about their regrets—we love hearing revelations like these. Better yet, what if you could ask hundreds of people about their biggest life regret, to see which ones get mentioned most.

Some psychologists addressed this issue a few years ago by reviewing a number of earlier studies which all asked people to describe their biggest life regret. To simplify people's responses, each regret was categorized into one of the following domains: Career, Community, Education, Family, Friends, Finances, Health, Leisure, Parenting, Romance, Self, or Spirituality.

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Starting with the most common domain, here's what they found:

1. Education. These regrets came in one of two forms. People regretted either: a) not getting enough education, or b) not applying themselves more in school. Many confessed that they didn't take school seriously enough, spending their time with friends who also didn't study much.

At first glance, it's surprising that regrets about education were more common than regrets about relationships, family, or health. But when you think about it, education improves a person's prospects in all these domains. More education generally means more money, and marriages tend to be stronger and family life more stable when people aren't burdened by financial worries. And in terms of physical health, many studies have shown that a person's education level is one of the best predictors of how long they'll live, even more important than income or type of occupation. So when people reflect on their life, many recognize that more education would have provided greater stability and more opportunities.

2. Career. As the second most common domain, people regretted that they didn't pursue the career they really loved. Instead, they chose a career path that was more practical, or one that would pay better. They knew early on what kind of work they felt passionate about, but it just seemed too risky to pursue.

3. Romance. These regrets took a variety of forms, such as marrying the "wrong" person, not putting more effort into their marriage, doing something to hurt their partner, or letting someone special slip away.

4. Parenting. One of two kinds here: For the first, some parents wished they had spent more time with their children while the children were young. These parents felt they had put too much time and energy into other pursuits, like work.

A second, very different kind of regret was that parents wished they'd postponed having their first child for just a few years longer—they regretted having children too early. This regret was more common among women, who have a shorter window of time in which to have children, and are more likely than men to make tradeoffs between having children vs. investing time in their education, career, and leisure activities. Many wished they had put off starting a family in order to build their career or get more life experiences.

Most of the life regrets fell into one of these four domains. Taken together, they do more than tell us what people consider their biggest mistakes; they also reveal what people come to value most in the long run.

But simply reading about these regrets doesn't guarantee that we'll avoid similar mistakes ourselves, when you consider that big mistakes don't usually result from conscious, one-time decisions (like choosing which school to go to, or whether to get divorced or not). Regrets that loom larger often grow out of a series of behaviors (or lack of behaviors) over a long period of time. For example, continually neglecting to call the brother you're holding a grudge against; or the hundreds of times you could have spent with your children but didn't; or the thousands of times you put off schoolwork to do something else.

Only later do we learn that lost opportunities have a way of sneaking up on us before we realize they're lost, before we realize the opportunities really meant something to us.

Every so often, then, it pays to slow down and re-assess what you're actually doing, to question whether your behavior isn't part of a larger pattern you'll someday regret. Do I really want to be the kind of father who misses his daughter's birthdays? How come I always start pushing someone away as soon as our relationship gets serious? How will I feel about myself if I spend the next 20 years in this dead-end job?

It's so easy to get wrapped up in comfortable rhythms of our routines that sometimes we need to confront unsettling questions like these, just to remind ourselves of the bigger picture.

Life moves pretty fast...If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

 

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)

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Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the Loyola University in Chicago.

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