Recently I was reflecting on decisions I have made in my life and of course it is often only in hindsight that the ramifications of many decisions become apparent. I am now able to realise that even with the decisions that were less than optimal, they were important for what I eventually learnt from going through the experience. Some of the decisions that I thought were important at the time now seem very insignificant to my life progress. The reason for this reflection was reading a short article in The Conversation where the author (Adrian Camilleri) had asked a group of Americans about their biggest life decisons and discusses the concept of regret. The article also mentions the work of an Australian caregiver Bronnie Ware who worked in palliative care and her experience talking with people at the end of life. The five main regrets were:
- 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’d stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish I had let myself be happier
Adrian Camilleri discusses what factors increase the chance of feeling regret:
In the long run it is inaction — deciding not to pursue something — that generates more regret. This is particularly true for males, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. If only I had asked her out, we might now be happily married.
Poor decisions produce greater regret when it is harder to justify those decisions in retrospect. I really value my friends and family so why did I leave them all behind to take up that overseas job?
Given that we are social beings, poor decisions in domains relevant to our sense of social belonging — such as romantic and family contexts — are more often regretted. Why did I break up my family by having a fling?
Regrets tend to be strongest for lost opportunities: that is, when undesirable outcomes that could have been prevented in the past can no longer be affected. I could have had a better relationship with my daughter if I had been there more often when she was growing up.
The most enduring regrets in life result from decisions that move you further from the ideal person that you want to be. I wanted to be a role model but I couldn’t put the wine bottle down.