Two psychologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed 370 men and women to find what people most commonly regretted in life. The number one response was “romance” while “family” took the number two spot.
Professors Neal Roese and Mike Morrison’s study confirmed the conventional wisdom that people matter more than money when you look back on life. “People crave strong, stable social relationships and are unhappy when they lack them,” the authors wrote.
Still, a significant percentage of people listed non-relationship regrets as number one.
Individually, education, career, and finance ranked third, fourth, and fifth. But taken as a whole, those three constituted over 35 percent of all regrets. These results show that your professional life can cause inner turmoil later in life just as much as lost loves or missed romantic opportunities.
For younger people, the biggest takeaway may be that personal relationships and career paths (including education) matter a great deal in the long run. Failing to binge-watch a popular series or attract a large following on social media did not crack the top seven regrets.
The authors also found that we regret inaction more than action.
For instance, not pursuing a romantic interest hurt more than doing so and being rejected. “Lost opportunities linger in our memory longer,” Roese puts it. “There are so many ways in which you can see different things you could have done.”
If you ask someone out and they reject you, it could sting for a while. Eventually, you’ll forget all about it. If you don’t ask them out, you could spend your entire life wondering what might have been. By avoiding a risky situation, you might be risking more in the long run.
The authors of the study urge people to consider regrets as opportunities to learn.
You will have regrets, but they don’t have to torture you. Don’t kick yourself for making a mistake, but don’t forget about it either.
Psychologists warn that moving on from a regret might make you forget the lesson you could have learned from it. Instead, acknowledge the regret, learn from it, and then you likely won’t repeat a similar error.
“Regret is an essential part of the human experience—something everybody has as long as they have life goals,” Roese says. “Rather than avoid it, it’s better to try to take some insights out of the regret experience.”
Here are the top seven regrets from the Roese and Morrison’s survey.
Romance (18.1 percent), family (15.9 percent), education (13.1 percent), career (12.2 percent), finance (9.9 percent), parenting (9 percent), and health (6 percent).
No one makes it through life without regrets, but that’s not such a bad thing.
Regrets show that we’ve grown as people and can recognize past mistakes. That’s a highly useful tool for becoming a better person and not repeating bad behavior.
“At the end of the day, regrets are highly useful emotions that signal to us where in life we need to improve, and motivate us to actually make those improvements,” Roese said. “We should listen to our regrets rather than pretend that we do not have them.”