Regret is rarely a light topic. It’s often tied to loss or mistakes or missed opportunities we wonder whether could have been life-changing if we had just chosen differently. So, perhaps it makes sense that our biggest regrets stem from our “ideal selves” and failing to live up to the people we wish we were, according to a new study from Cornell University.
The study, aptly titled “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” was conducted by psychologist Tom Gilovich and former Cornell graduate student Shai Davidai and published in the April issue of scientific journal Emotion. Researchers asked hundreds of participants over the course of six studies about times they experienced regret, using those answers to categorize the ways in which we think about ourselves the topic of regret as a whole.
“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be.”
The research expands on three types of “selves” that exist within us: our ideal self, our ought self, and our actual self. The “ideal self” is made up of attributes we wish we possessed as well as our hopes and dreams. The “ought self” is comprised of obligations and responsibilities. “Your ought self could be, ‘I ought to be a person who is healthier and should go to the gym more,’” said Gilovich. The “actual self” is, as the name suggests, who we believe ourselves to actually be and the attributes we believe ourselves to currently possess.
So, where does regret stem from? Failing to live up to our “ideal selves,” according to this research. Participants said they often felt regrets tied to ideal self (72 percent compared 28 percent). When asked to name their single biggest life regret, 76 percent of participants brought up an experience tied to an unfulfilled aspect of their ideal self.
Here’s what Gilovich had to say in a release about the study results:
“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. To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact. But for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”
Basically, we hate the idea of not living up to our potential, of disappointing the person we believe we could be if we just tried.
Gilovich also mentioned short-term regret tends to be tied to action rather than inaction. However, in the long-term, regrets tied to inaction tend to have a more enduring effect. “The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction,” Gilovich said. “It’s ‘I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.’”
Goals tied to our ideal selves are often more ambiguous than the more concrete goals associated to our ought selves, Gilovich also said. For example, asking an embarrassing question in class may cause immediate regret; goals tied to how we “ought” to behave are “easier to fulfill,” Gilovich said. However, aspirations like “be a better friend” has less “clear guideposts.”
So, what are we to do with this research? Know that we’re all doomed to live in regret? Gilovich said this research should inspire people to take action where they may be too afraid, to do that thing we’ve been aspiring to do.
“As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it,’” he said. “Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”
Plus, people are paying way less attention to us than we fear they are. “People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” he added. “If that’s what holding you back – the fear of what other people will think and notice – then think a little more about just doing it.”
So, do the thing that scares you in a good way. Start taking steps to reach that goal that seems lofty. Science says you’ll feel better in the long run if you do.