A new study highlights how failing to live up to our ‘ideal selves’ can leave us feeling melancholy – but it is possible to avoid those regrets.
That job in Barcelona you never applied for, because you didn’t think you’d get it. The gap year you never took. The person you had a staggering crush on, but never told. When it comes to regrets, it’s often the possibilities we didn’t pursue that haunt us the most.
At least, that’s the conclusion of a new study by psychologists at Cornell University. The research, published in the journal Emotion, found that the notion of ‘failing our ideal selves’ is the thing most likely to leave us with lasting regrets.
In other words, the idea that we didn’t live up to our hopes, goals and aspirations is more likely to leave us with an enduring sense of melancholy than the knowledge that we didn’t properly fulfil our more concrete duties, obligations and responsibilities. (If you’ve always wanted to move to Barcelona and don’t, that’s likely to make you feel more downcast – in the long run – than the knowledge that you didn’t get a promotion at work.)
“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,” Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology and the lead author on the study, said in a statement. “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.”
Gilovich and researcher Shai Davidai surveyed hundreds of participants for their study, building on the idea that a person’s sense of self is made up by three elements: the actual, the ideal and the ought selves. The actual self is made up of the attributes a person thinks they possess, while the ideal self is the attributes they would ideally like to possess. The ought self, in contrast, is the person they feel they should have been, based on duties, obligations and responsibilities.
Over the course of six studies, Gilovich and Davidai’s survey respondents were asked to describe the differences between their ought and ideal selves, and to list and categorise their regrets based on these descriptions.
When asked to name their single biggest regret in life, an overwhelming majority (76%) of participants named a regret related to failing to live up to their ideal self.
In general, the respondents said they experienced regrets about their ideal self far more often (72%) than their ought selves (28%) – and more than 50% mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far.
Why are people so much more likely to have regrets linked to their ideal selves? Gilovich and Davidai’s theory is that the expectations we place on our ought selves tend to be reasonably tangible, such as saving a specific amount of money before a certain age or seeing our extended family a set number of times a year. This makes them easier to fulfil – not least because if we feel that we’re not on track to achieve them, we can take steps to address the issue.
Our hopes, dreams and goals, in contrast, tend to be much vaguer and more general than the duties and responsibilities we feel we ought to carry out – meaning that they’re more likely to remain unresolved. Gilovich gives the examples of being a good parent or a good mentor as hopes we might have for our ideal selves.
“Well, what does that mean, really?” he says. “There aren’t clear guideposts. And you can always do more.”
Gilovich believes that the research has practical implications. We tend to assume that we need inspiration before we try to achieve our ideals, he says, but a significant amount of psychological research has shown that’s not true.
“As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it,’” he says. “Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”
So what are you waiting for? Make a list of the things you dream most often of doing and being, and start thinking about how you’ll tackle them this year. You’ll only regret it if you don’t.
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