Fascinating study concludes that our biggest regret in life is not living up to our own expectations

Everyone has regrets. Some live with it while others try to move on. Regrets may have been bred out of lost love, forsaken dreams, and broken faith, but mostly, it revolves around your past mistakes and how you fervently hope you can change them and recreate your present. As the future looms ahead, it’s regret that keeps the trail behind.

In a study published in the journal Emotion, researchers have discovered and observed that the most enduring and lasting regret, the kind that lingers for a very long time, stems from our failure to live up to our own expectations. In the research paper entitled, “The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets,” Cornell University researchers and psychologists identified that there are three elements that make up a person’s self: the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self.

The actual self pertains to the best qualities that a person thinks he/she possesses, while the ideal self refers to the qualities he/she wishes to have. The ought self is the person he/she should have been based on responsibilities and obligations. (Read: Follow these 10 lifestyle tips to live a healthy, happy life without regret.)

The recent study, authored by Shai Davidai, a psychology professor at The New School, and Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich, was built from a body of existing research that aimed to understand the staying power and lingering effect of regret. Davidai and Gilovich surveyed a hundred participants through the course of six studies.

The participants were taught about the three elements that make up a person’s sense of self. They were tasked to list down and categorize their regrets based on the descriptions of actual self, ideal self and ought self. Across these six studies, the two researchers were able to examine the idea that the deepest regrets usually come from not pursuing their dreams no matter how ambitious and unlikely it is to happen.

The researchers observed that the participants’ enduring regrets are deeply rooted in ideal self. Most of the list that they have collected includes regrets such as: not pursuing their loved ones; not traveling the world; and/or abandoning their lifelong dreams. When participants were asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent mentioned that it’s mainly about not fulfilling their ideal self.

So, what was it in the ideal self that sparked such regret among the participants? Is it the longing to be the best version of ourselves and being afraid of failing in front of our loved ones? Why is it such a big regret not being able to express our heart’s desire?

According to Gilovich, the reason why the ideal self has kindled such passion among people is because it’s definitely harder to fulfill. Unlike the ought self where there are certain standards and a set of rules to follow, the ideal self does not have a clear guidepost on what to do and how to act in order to achieve what we want to become.

Case in point, our ought self knows how to behave during funerals and formal gatherings because we were taught how one should behave in such scenarios. However, our ideal self does not have a clear idea of what to do to achieve what we are yearning for. For example, there was one participant whose lifelong dream is to become an opera singer, but he abandoned that dream because of self-doubt. While he knows what he wants, there’s no specific action to be taken in order for him to reach his dream.

This latest study about regrets resonates with the practical implication that one can adapt to everyday life. Living in the present and just doing what you love can help you ease your burdens and regrets. The ultimate choice of living with regret or acting upon it is always yours to make.

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