I did the members teaching this week on this topic of living without regret. To prepare for it I looked at some research on this topic. Research by Gilovich et al (1995) looks into what people regret most in their lives and why, and indicates that mistaken actions generate more regret in the short term, but that mistaken inactions generate more regret in the long run.
Gilovich’s research indicates that people most regretted:
- Not taking their education/career more seriously and working harder on it.
- Not being more assertive.
- Not taking more risks.
- Not spending more time with friends and family.
- Failure to seize the moment.
- Not pursuing interests/hobbies.
In her book, inspired by her time working in palliative care Bronnie Ware lists the top five regrets of the dying as:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Davidai et al (2018) explore enduring regrets in relation to a person’s self-concept. Their research indicates that enduring regrets stem from our concept of our ideal self, such as failures to live up to our goals and aspirations. This is opposed to living up to our concept of our ought self, such as failures to live up to our duties and responsibilities. That is people regret more what they could have done rather than what they should have done. They regret failing to follow their dreams and live up to their full potential.
So, it seems that regret lies more with what we wish we had done and how we wish we had been.
When we explore regrets, it can be emotionally challenging. Therefore, to do this skilfully we can take time to generate an attitude of non-judgement, self-acceptance and self-compassion. We can reflect that the human condition is not one of perfection and that regret is a common experience for us human beings. We can also reflect that the things we regret were often due to causes and conditions beyond our control, such as the conditioning we experienced as we grew up, the expectations of our culture and society and challenging life circumstances. However, we can take responsibility now to live fully by practicing mindfulness, kindness and compassion meditation.
Rob Nairn taught that being a human is a messy business, but that we can be a compassionate mess. He also taught that we only have this self sitting here now. We do not have an alternative spare self hanging up in the wardrobe. Therefore, we should let outselves off the hook of perfection and accept the person we are – mess and all – with kindness, humour and forgiveness.
If you would like to explore this topic further, with like minded people, then why not join our new Living Well to Die Well course
Heather Regan-Addis teaches on the Masters Degree courses that the Mindfulness Association partners on with the University of Aberdeen (Studies in Mindfulness) and with the University of West of Scotland (Teaching Mindfulness and Compassion).
Davidai & Gilovich, 2018: The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in mode people’s enduring regrets.
Gilovich et al, 1995: The experience of regret: What, when and why
Ware, 2012: The top five regrets of the dying.
Williamson, M. 1996: A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”