Study: You’ll have fewer regrets if you forget the laundry list of ‘ought-to’s’ and chase your passions

We regret more the things we didn’t do over the things we did, as inaction takes us further from our ideal selves, according to new research.

Our deepest regrets come from our failure to live up to our ideal selves, says new research from Cornell. People are much more regretful about not fulfilling their dreams and aspirations than they are about failing to fulfill their responsibilities and the long list of things they “ought” to do.

So this year, why not try getting good at the guitar collecting dust in the corner or learning a new language, instead of doing what you’re “supposed” to do, like dragging yourself to the gym more often.

“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re headed towards our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be,” says study co-author Tom Giolovich, a psychologist and former Cornell graduate student, in a release. “Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you because they are what you look at through the windshield of life.”

The research identifies three parts that make up a person’s self: the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self (that’s the part filled with obligations, demands, and things we really should do). It’s the failure to live up to one’s ideal self that really bothers people – not the failure to live up to the ought self.

People’s biggest regrets come from whether they “acted or failed to act,” according to the study. Typically, major regrets come from things people didn’t do (but wish they had), rather than things people did do (but wish they hadn’t).

“The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction,” said Gilovich. “It’s ‘I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.’ ”

In one experiment, 72% said they had the biggest regrets about not being the person they could have been (over not being the person they should have been). In another study, where participants were asked to write down their regrets, 57% of those regrets were about the failure to live up to their ideal selves.

In short, it’ll bother you less if you fail to stick to your healthy-eating plan this year – a thing you “ought” to do. But you’ll truly regret it if you don’t spend any time working on your novel.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.