Whether it's the great guy who got away or the dead-end relationship that went on way too long, regrets involving romance are most commonly cited when people are asked about things they wish they'd done differently.
Researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed 370 adults aged 19 to 103 about their regrets. Each was asked to describe, in detail, one decision they came to rue.
About 18% cited regrets involving romance. That was followed closely by regrets about family (16%), education (13%) and career (12%), finance (10%) and parenting (9%).
Women were more likely than men to have regrets about romantic or family relationships. About 44% of the regrets described by women were about relationship mistakes compared to 19% of men's.
"It speaks to something psychologists have known for a long time. Women are typically charged with the role of maintaining and preserving relationships, so when things do go wrong, it's very spontaneous for women to think, 'I should have done it some other way,'" said senior study author Neal Roese, a psychologist and professor of marketing at Northwestern. "It's how men and women are raised in this culture."
What men regret most
Men, on the other hand, were more likely to have regrets about work or education - 34% compared to women's 26%, the study found.
Many of the regrets around work involved missed opportunities - turning down a job instead of going for it, failing to take risks that could have led to a more fulfilling career. "There was a sense of frustration that a job doesn't reflect inner passion," Roese said of the study published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Those with less education were more likely to have education regrets. And those with more education were more likely to have career regrets.
"As people rise higher in our culture, there is a perception of greater opportunities," Roese said. "Paradoxically, the more opportunities you have, the more ways you can see how you could have gotten more . . . Opportunity fuels the regret experience."
So does this mean you should quit your desk job to realise your dream of working with horses or sailing the world?
Love and career regrets
Maybe, Roese said. In the survey, people were free to describe a short-term regret or a regret that lingered a lifetime.
Short-term regrets tended to be about things people did - say, accidentally hitting "reply all" on an email, or forgetting to call Mom on Mother's Day.
But the long-lasting regrets were more often about things that people didn't do, such as never expressing their feelings to a loved one or taking a career risk.
"When you look to the recent past, you are more likely to kick yourself for blurting out something inappropriate at dinner or buying something you couldn't afford," he said. "When you look back at your own past to long ago, you are more likely to see things you should have or could have done. A lost love. A job you could have had."
Over time, people rationalise their actions, explaining away their mistakes, Roese pointed out. But when it comes to inaction, people forget the barriers that kept them from taking the action - they only remember that they didn't try.
"When people reflect on the past, which is what regret does, we ruminate about the things that didn't go well but we don't savor the good times," said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. "We are much more impacted by the negative stuff."
And though regret can be painful, a life without regret isn't only near impossible, it would lack a fundamental emotion that spurs people to avoid future mistakes.
"Regret is an essential part of the human experience," Roese said. "You should listen to the lessons your regrets tell you, which is quite often how you could have done things differently or how you could change things."
Everyone makes mistakes, Ferrari added. "It's how you get up, and how you rebound, that matters," he said. "Instead of letting regret dominate life, savour what you do have, and what did go right . . . We need to look more in terms of our strengths, and not our weaknesses."
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