The word regret, when used as a noun, is often defined as a sad feeling about something that has happened. When used as a verb, it can describe feeling sad about a missed opportunity. No matter how you define it, regret is an emotional factor that typically involves a negative experience. We are all familiar with the phrase, “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” or some version of it. Let’s explore what elderly men and women say are their biggest regrets in life and why.
In a paper entitled “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” Cornell psychologists identified three elements that make up a person’s sense of self.
- Your actual self consists of qualities that you believe you possess.
- Your ideal self is made up of the qualities you want to have.
- Your ought self is the person you feel you should have been, according to your obligations and responsibilities.
In surveying the responses of hundreds of participants in six studies, the researchers found that, when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of participants said it was not fulfilling their ideal self.
We live in a world in which we are told that we’ll have a great life if we follow the rules. So you figure that if you do all of the things that society expects of you—act like a good citizen, get married at the appropriate time, make enough money to pay the bills—that you’ll feel happy and fulfilled with your life. But those are all qualities associated with your ought self, which the study found people have limited regrets about (in part because they actually act on decisions associated with it). But when it comes to your dreams and aspirations, people are more likely to let them just drift by unrealized, and that’s what really stings later in life.
These are the things heard most by Hospice nurses from their dying patients:
- I would have lived life for me. They chose to do what others expected of them. They set aside their dreams and their wishes to make someone else happy. They look back on their life and realize how much energy and time they wasted living for others.
- I would not have worked so much. This regret comes from almost all elderly men. They forfeited extracurricular activities or were too tired to enjoy evening and weekend entertainment.
- I should have spoken up more. Many people wish they had the courage to express their feelings at any given moment; however, they consistently suppressed them. “I regret not telling _____ that I loved him.” “I regret not making amends with _____ before she died.” They believe that their life course would have been dramatically different if they had just said what was on their mind.
- I would have spent more time with family. Family conflicts now seem trivial and kept them away from seeing family members on a regular basis. Their life experience has prompted them to reflect on their younger years. The importance of spending quality time with their loved ones rings true for them. Their priorities changed in their golden years.
- I should have followed my dreams. They played it safe and chose a reliable career or they never moved outside of their hometown because comfort, familiarity, and security dictated their actions. They wanted more but feared change and disapproval from their family and friends. Now later in life, they think about the non-achievable accomplishments and unfulfilled passions of their youth. The elderly long for an experience that is beyond their reach because they opted for contentment. Their life may have been a successful and prosperous one, but could they have been happier?
- I could have taken better care of myself and appreciated _____more. They will also tell you that those ailments would be less if they had done things differently. Elderly women regret the havoc that the sun has caused on their skin because they did not avoid long hours in the sun or did not take precautions with hats and sunscreen. They also suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol levels from fatty foods, as well as contend with the effects of stress, which is more prevalent now at this stage in their life. The blank portion of this regret is normally filled with: life, my friends, my family, or a specific person’s name. They focus on their last conversation, their last face-to-face meeting, and that person’s appearance. They ponder the sincerity of their relationship. Was I good to him or her? Did I say I love you? Did they know it?
- I would have traveled more and taken more risks. The elderly population says there was always a reason not to go away for a vacation, such as that they were low on funds; had too many work duties, or kids were in school. Everyone thinks that they have all the time in the world. Elderly people regret adventurous undertakings that they passed on: worrying about treading deep water prohibited them from swimming in beautiful lakes and oceans; or taking themselves too seriously prevented them from laughing as loud as they wanted to.
If you want to leave a legacy of satisfaction and happiness, live your best life. It’s vital for people to act on their hopes and dreams. So learn that language you’ve always wanted to study. Take that backpacking trip through Asia you’ve been talking about for ages. Write that book that’s been tinkering around in your head for years. Don’t leave it for tomorrow. There’s only today.
Ref. CNN, bestlifeonline.com, MSN, termlifeinsurance.com, americanrecruiters.com
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