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What are your biggest regrets? Study looks at disappointment

Sometimes, the person who disappoints you the most is yourself. In a series of new studies, scientists have found that most people list not living their dreams and letting themselves down among their biggest regrets.

“My biggest regret was not going to graduate school when I had the opportunity. I have found success elsewhere and raised my family how I wanted to, but I have always regretted not going,” one 54-year-old study participant told the researchers.

“My biggest regret in life was not pursuing my dream of singing. I followed a traditional route instead and became a teacher,” another study participant, 62, said.

Other regrets shared by study participants included remarrying and moving away from a good job and home, passing on a dream house, declining to go on a research trip, and selling shares in Netflix and Facebook.

The six studies, led by Dr. Shai Davidai of the New School for Social Research and Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, sought to explore the differences between people’s “ideal selves” – who people think they should be – and “ought selves” – the persona built out of perceived duties and responsibilities.

Some people’s biggest regrets stem from things they did, such as cheating on a spouse. Other regrets are opportunities passed up because the “ought self” wins out over the “ideal self.” Regrets ranged in intensity from dreams deferred or not visiting a dying relative, to not having more fun in high school.

The researchers found that people were more likely to focus on missed opportunities than past mistakes, however. More participants had resolved their “ought self” regrets than their “ideal self” regrets.

“People are quicker to take steps to cope with failures to live up to their duties and responsibilities (ought-related regrets) than their failures to live up to their goals and aspirations (ideal-related regrets),” Davidai and Gilovich wrote. “As a consequence, ideal-related regrets are more likely to remain unresolved, leaving people more likely to regret not being all they could have been more than all they should have been.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that people should pursue their dreams at all cost to prevent their biggest regrets, the pair wrote. But the study does show how people’s self-image influences their disappointments.

The study has been published in the journal Emotion.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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