How To Avoid Regrets

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Co-written by Lee Daniel Kravetz.

We all have dreams. Almost everyone catches themselves daydreaming with at least moderate frequency, and our daydreams tend to be dominated by imagined futures — the people we secretly want to be and the lives we wish we were living.

But we don’t often act on these dreams. Instead, we tend to opt for the status quo. That’s probably a good thing; making too many changes willy-nilly in our lives is almost certainly not a recipe for success.

Yet, there’s a flip side to the security the status quo affords: It can inadvertently lead us into regret. In the 1940s and 50s, the great psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that, in old age, we enter a stage known as “Integrity vs. Despair” in which we glance back, examining our lives and what we’ve accomplished. This stage is dominated by a fraught but unavoidable question: Was it good?

The problem is, by the time people get there, it’s often too late to do much about a negative answer. So, how we live now really matters.

According to research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people’s biggest regrets typically fall into some pretty mundane categories. Missed educational opportunities collectively constitute the most common type of life regret. Career regrets are the second most common type, followed by romance and parenting issues.

But the most intriguing fact about life regrets is that most of them don’t involve things people have actually done. Instead, opportunities people wished they would have taken, but didn’t, exert a far more powerful influence on people in the long term, sometimes burdening them for years.

So what does it take to goad us into acting on our dreams and being the people we want to be?

For our book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, we interviewed people who had transformed their lives in extraordinary ways in the wake of trauma and tragedy.

One person we spoke to was a designer and urban planner named Candy Chang. She was making a successful living, but had not given much thought to the meaning of her life until a close friend suddenly passed away. This event threw Candy for a loop.

For the first time, she viscerally realized that anything could happen at any time, and that life could be shorter than any of us anticipate. She began examining her values and asking herself what she really wanted her life to look like. This motivated her to move to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina to help in the rebuilding efforts.

Her particular neighborhood was hit hard by the storm, and she felt as though what it needed was an emotional center. So she and a few friends got up one morning and brought buckets of chalkboard paint to one of the community’s most bombed-out-looking houses.

Together, they turned an entire side of the house into a large blackboard. At the top, she stenciled in white: “Before I die I want to…” and drew 80 blanks underneath, leaving chalk behind for people to fill in answers.

Believing little would come of it, she was shocked the next morning to find that people had filled in every single one of the blanks, with responses spilling into the margins:

  • “I want to see my child graduate.”
  • “I want to found a company.”
  • “I want to climb a mountain.”

She erased the wall, and the next day it had filled up again. These walls now span over 60 countries, and have been created in more than 30 languages.

For the 80 people who filled in those blanks each day, just below the surface dwelled meaningful dreams. It’s probably that way for most of us. But we may not always be fully in touch with our dreams, and most of the time we don’t act on them.

There’s something about reflecting on our mortality that allows us to access those dreams in a more vivid and motivating way.

This isn’t just a casual observation. University of Minnesota psychology researcher Philip Cozzolino, along with Angela Staples, Lawrence Meyers, and Jamie Samboceti, performed a series of experiments in which they asked participants to reflect upon death in deeply personal way. They not only encouraged participants to imagine their deaths, but also prompted them, among other things, to reflect on the life they had led up to that point.

It’s similar to the way some survivors of traumatic experiences say their lives flashed before them, or the question Candy Chang asked passersby to consider. As a result, participants who normally were oriented toward extrinsic goals (e.g., money and fame) became less greedy and more spiritual. In short, they began acting in ways that were truer to the selves they wanted to be.

Virtually nothing in life is certain. Should I risk my current job to venture out on a new career? Is now the time to go back to school? Is now the time to retire?

As diligently as we may try to calculate the risks and rewards of decisions like these, life is ultimately about taking leaps into a hazy but tantalizing future. But a first step is bringing ourselves into contact with what is truly important to us, and taking those dreams and desires seriously. Perhaps we can all make acting on our most precious dreams the new status quo.

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