In life, what our souls tell us to do is often in conflict with what we feel we "should" do. You should find a stable, well-paying job, your parents and teachers tell you, for instance. Meanwhile, your heart tells you that you have the soul of a musician or an entrepreneur. You should save money for a down payment on a house, but meanwhile you daydream endlessly about squandering your measly savings on extended travel.

When these inevitable crossroads come and you need to choose between the road that leads toward the sensible and expected path and the one that leads toward some crazy dream, which path should you choose?

This might sound like an entirely personal decision (and ultimately it is), but recent science can actually offer some guidance. If you're like the majority of people, new research shows, you're going to regret not following your dreams a whole lot more than you're going to regret not doing what you "should."

It's the "couldas," not the "shouldas," that will haunt you.

There are already tons of anecdotal evidence about what people regret in life, from the testimony of those who care for the dying to multiple social media threads dedicated to sharing regrets and helping others avoid similar ones. But scientists out of Cornell and the New School for Social Research wanted to do a more rigorous exploration of what people really end up regretting.

To accomplish this, they recruited hundreds of participants to share their regrets. They then divided these answers into two categories: those involving the "ideal self," i.e., who you dreamed you'd be or who you felt an inner drive to become, and those involving the "ought self," i.e., those that dealt with not meeting the expectations or ideals of others. Which type of regret was more common?

Ideal-self regrets won by a landslide. "Participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72 percent versus 28 percent); they mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far (57 percent versus 43 percent); and when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self (76 percent versus 24 percent mentioning an ought-self regret)," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog.

The researchers do note that individual preferences vary. Some folks are more tortured by meeting expectations than others. But their ultimate takeaway is pretty clear: "If one is an adventurous soul guided by her ideal self, she might indeed end up happier by seizing the day and not looking back. As we have shown in this research, a person focused on her ideal self is more likely to lose sleep over her 'wouldas' and 'couldas' than her 'shouldas.'"

More research-backed regret minimization tips

If you're keen to avoid too many regrets in life (who isn't?), it's also worth noting that these aren't the first researchers to investigate the question. Other scientists have looked at the same question from slightly different angles. A Kellogg School of Management professor conducted a similar study a few years back and found that people also regret things they didn't do far more than things they tried but failed at.

So if you're looking for regret-minimization rules, this latest study suggests you should consult your ideals before others' expectations when making decisions. The earlier research suggests if the choice is between safe-seeming inaction and jumping into something that will possibly fail, take the leap.

Published on: May 10, 2018