Whether you ask those facing the end of life or psychologists who study regret what missed opportunities tend to torture people the most, you'll get the same answer. Both personal testimony and research suggest that we're much more bothered by actions not taken and dreams not pursued than we are by failure or ignoring others' expectations.
Not trying to start that business or failing to tell her how you really feel will haunt you until the end of your days. Not taking that sensible job your mom said was a good idea probably won't. Which is handy to know if you're looking forward and attempting to plan your life to avoid regret, but it's not really much use if you've already missed big chances to become your best self.
Has science uncovered any advice on what you should do if you're haunted by dreams not pursued? Actually yes, explains a recent Quartz article from Lila MacLellan.
Ignoring your regrets doesn't work. This does.
In it, MacLellan speaks to Shai Davidai, a psychology professor at The New School, whose research confirms missed opportunities trouble us more than failure to do the sensible, "right," thing. The complete post is a fascinating deep dive into Davidai's work if you're interested, but it closes with useful advice for those already suffering from serious regrets.
If you're haunted by actions not taken, don't try to white knuckle your way through or put the missed opportunity out of your mind. It won't work, Davidai advises, using his own youthful failure to say yes to a job at a ski resort as an example. Instead, your best bet is to take whatever action you can now, no matter how small, to correct your past error. You can never go back and say yes to that adventure you chickened out on decades ago, but you can work systematically to put more adventure into your life now.
"Rather than wallow in that despair, [about his missed chance to become a ski bum] he has chipped away at satisfying the wanderlust that feeds it," MacLellan reports of Davidai. "He and his wife plan one adventurous trip per year, the only rule being that the destination is someplace they've never been."
Getting over regret, then, begins with identifying what your ideal self actually looks like. Which is, as we all know, often easier said than done. Chasing every impulse makes you a feckless, self-involved jerk. Ignoring them all makes you miserable and regretful. Offering his take on the findings, the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman provides some guidance on how to figure out where sensible tradeoffs end and regret-inducing timidity begins.
"These findings are a powerful argument for figuring out what you truly want from life and giving it a shot, even at the risk of others' negative judgments. Of course, the challenge is figuring out what that is," he acknowledges. "That's why I like the trick, with its roots in the work of Carl Jung, of flipping the question and asking not what you want from life, but what life wants from you. Looking beyond your immediate whims and desires, what's trying to come into being through you?" (Another way to look at it is to ask yourself, are you doing what you should or what you must?)
Once you know who you wish you had become, you can take small steps towards aligning your actual life with that vision. And that, science says, is the only way to make that regret sting a little less.