You’ve probably read about an interesting study by Bronnie Ware regarding the most common regrets of people in their deathbeds. Ware, a palliative nurse who counseled the dying in their last days, studied a cohort of people between the ages of 60 and 95. One question she asked her patients was, “what do you regret in your life?” The answers were remarkable: the regrets of the dying had nothing to do with their wealth, possessions, or status. They regretted most missed opportunities in their life—not having tried something, not having taken that chance, and not having stepped out of their comfort zones when they knew they wanted to do something and could have done it.
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Ware published her studies first on a popular internet article and later expanded it into a mediocre book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures
Younger people shared comparable sentiments on regretting not taking chances to have fun. Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard University conducted a study of how college students felt about the balance of study/work and amusement during their winter breaks. Immediately after the break, the students regretted not having studied enough, not working, and not saving money. However, a year later, they regretted not having enough fun and not traveling.
Further along, when the students regrouped for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about not fully using their college breaks to travel and enjoy life. Kivetz explained, “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.”
Long-Term Regrets Are Usually About Not Taking More Risks
Regrets take two forms: regrets of co-mission (regrets regarding things you did that you wish you hadn’t) and regrets of omission (regrets regarding things you didn’t do that you wish you had.) As people get older and look back at their lives in retrospect, they tend to ruminate more about the things they didn’t do but should have. Deciding not to take gap year and travel around Asia, shying away from telling that girl you love her, holding a grudge against a sibling for years, not learning to surf, and other what-ifs will come to dominate your pangs of regret.
It’s Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret
As you grow older, you will realize that the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do—things that you didn’t commit to when you had the opportunity. The following three quotes echo this life-lesson:
- “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace,” wrote the American writer Henry James at age 70 to English novelist Hugh Walpole
- “The best advice I got from my aunt, the great singer Rosemary Clooney, and from my dad, who was a game show host and news anchor, was: don’t wake up at seventy years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail, and at least you gave it a shot. That’s echoed for me all through the last few years,” said the American actor and activist George Clooney
- “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., the American bestselling author of the inspirational book Life’s Little Instruction Book. (He possibly incorporated a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain.)
Idea for Impact: You will Come to Regret Your Inactions Far Longer than Your Actions
A fascinating way of looking at life is to think about your life and your career in the context of future regret-avoidance. Regrets for the things you did are likely to be tempered by the passage of time, but regrets for the things you do not do will be upsetting in retrospect. Therefore, contemplating about what you may come to regret in the future could transform you into taking different actions today.
One key to helpful decision-making is to forestall subsequent regret. Many of the questions you will grapple with in life are about taking risk—stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. You know what you want to try but you’re not sure if you should try it.
The best things in life may happen just beyond your comfort zone. Don’t ruminate excessively before making a decision. Make a habit of embracing the adventure of uncertainty by taking low-risk actions. Being wrong and failing costs very little in the long-term. You can bounce back faster than you imagine.
Slow down, reassess your options, and question if the choices you’re making at the moment are part of a life-trail you’ll come to regret sooner or later.