ITHACA, N. Y. — If you want a new year with fewer regrets, you may want to rekindle a forgotten dream or passion, according to a recent study.
Perhaps you once dreamed of being, say, a magician or a musician but gave up the idea for practical reasons. Maybe this is the year to shake things up. New research from Cornell University has found that in the long run, we are three times more likely to regret not chasing our dreams than we are to regret tackling another list of ought-to items.
“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be,” says study coauthor Tom Gilovich, a psychologist and former Cornell graduate student, in a media release. “Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life.”
Gilovich says we tend to look at the should-do expectations differently. “The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road,” he explains. “Those were problems, but now they’re behind you.”
Recent studies build on research Gilovich conducted in the 1990s that created a lot of buzz about what people most regret. That research established the concept that people regret the things left undone much more than the things done.
“In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions,” he says. “But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.”
Researchers say that of our three selves — actual, idealized and ought — we tend to operate most out of the ought-to mode. In terms of happiness, however, it is the difference between our actual and idealized selves that haunts us the most as time goes by.
We spend the bulk of our time and effort fulfilling a long list of duties and responsibilities while ignoring the dreams of our idealized selves. “The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction,” says Gilovich. “It’s ‘I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.’”
For the study, researchers conducted six studies surveying hundreds of participants about the differences between their ought and ideal selves. Participants were asked to list and categorize regrets as either ought- or ideal-based.
The results of the surveys show that participants were about three times more likely to have regrets about their idealized self (72 percent) than about their ought self (28 percent). More than half of them listed more lifelong regrets in the ideal-self column than in the ought-self column. For 76 percent of them, their one big regret in life involved not trying for an ideal-self dream.
The authors think they know why dashed dreams create the deepest regrets. “People are more likely to take active steps to rectify regrets related to their ought selves, so those regrets are more likely to be filed away as resolved and thereby seem less bothersome with time,” Gilovich says.
There is also the practical aspect. Ought-self expectations are rule specific, thus easier to fulfil. On the other hand, ideal-related regrets come about because expectations can be very murky. What does it mean to be a good artist, for example. “There aren’t clear guideposts,” says Gilovich. “And you can always do more.”
Sometimes people do not reach for these idealistic goals because they are waiting for a moment of inspiration or maybe they think they will get laughed at for trying.
In either case, researchers say the answer is the same: “As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it,’” Gilovich concludes. “Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”
As for how others might respond, “People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” he adds. “If that’s what is holding you back – the fear of what other people will think and notice – then think a little more about just doing it.”
But don’t think too long. The best way to have a year with fewer regrets is to simply try. What is the worst that could happen if you shoot for the stars?
The research, “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” was published in the journal Emotion.