What if you somehow managed to buttonhole people on the street and ask them to share their biggest regret? Would you hear an endless refrain of career missteps and romantic missed connections?
Actually, probably not if a thought-provoking experiment from journalist Emma Freud is to be believed. In an attempt to bash a little wisdom into the heads of her adolescent children, Freud harnessed the relative anonymity of Twitter to ask strangers to share their most painful life missteps.
"The response was huge. It wasn't just big in volume - more than 300 replies - but the tweets were devastatingly honest," she reports. The responses were hard afield from what you might predict too. "All I had expected were a few variations of the classic 'I regret working too hard - should have spent more time with the kids,' but nobody said that - not one person," Freud writes.
So what do people commonly regret? Freud reported all her results in a recent Guardian article that's equal parts devastating and eye-opening. The complete piece is really worth a read in full, but here's a condensed version of her field guide to common real-life regrets.
1. End of life regrets
The number one most common regret Freud heard will probably surprise you. It had nothing to do with romance, careers, or money. Instead, these regrets revolved around the person's behavior as a loved one neared the end of his or her life.
"By far the most frequent were regrets about not doing the right thing when someone died," reports Freud. Here are a few examples:
"Not being with Mum at the end. She died 2 hrs after I left her, it haunts me still"
"My cousin rang me on Christmas eve and I really rushed the convo because I was cooking ... she killed herself on Boxing Day"
2. Staying silent about abuse
Perhaps the recent tsunami of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse (as well as the #MeToo campaign) have made the issue top of mind, but Freud noticed a startling number of tweets from abuse victims who regret bitterly not speaking up sooner.
"The damage, trauma and pain came from a range of different circumstances, but the 'regret' in all of them seemed to be the same - that the survivor hadn't spoken up sooner. It was one area in which the abused had control, and they regretted not exercising it," she writes.
"Maybe these survivors passing on this single regret with such unity and clarity will encourage others to exercise that one vital control. I was humbled by their honesty," she continues, movingly.
3. Not taking advantage of education
The successful, world-wise dropout - a la Mark Zuckerberg and Sir Richard Branson - is potent and seductive myth, but it seems in real life people often bitterly regret not taking more advantage of the educational opportunities presented to them.
"There were many more regrets to do with school and college than I would have expected," Freud reports, offering examples like:
"Never going to University. Left me disadvantaged all my life. Never lived my potential"
"Leaving school in 80s & not going to art college. I wanted to get a job. Found one. Still at the same workplace now"
Science shows people most often regret chances not taken rather than failed endeavors, and that's part of what Freud discovered too. "Regret seems most often to be about fear. Fear of getting it wrong, leading to an unfulfilled life, followed by self-blame for being fearful," she writes.
Some of these involved fear in the professional realm - such as, "Too scared to risk failing at something I loved, so I succeeded at something I had no passion for" - but many others focused on matters of the heart.
"A few tweets from people regretting that they had declared their love and ended up having their heart broken, but many, many more regretting not being braver and not risking vulnerability - the regret of having been afraid," Freud relates.
Many tweeters expressed regret about their own anxiety , according to Freud. Of all the responses, these seem to strike her as the most troubling. After all, you can't be blamed for your own mental health struggles, she notes.
"Nobody said, 'I regret that I got cancer,' because nobody chooses to contract the disease, therefore it's not technically a regret. But mental health still carries the stigma that it's a 'weakness' of some sort," she observes, which leads to tweets like:
"I regret being scared all the time"
"Worrying. About pretty much everything. All the time"
6. The time it took to change
"It was encouraging that right alongside the people who regretted a life lived in fear were others who had made a change - now regretting the time it had taken to find their solution for this exact problem," claims Freud, offering examples:
"Taking far too long to realize that everyone else in the world is also imperfect and winging it - just like me"
"Being scared all the time. Moved to France - still scary but food and life is good!"
"Where there's life, there's clearly time to turn regret around," she concludes. It's a lovely lesson from a lovely experiment. Check out the complete article for many, many more tweets and stories that span the gamut from heartbreaking to heartwarming.