The life not lived can be more vivid than the life we do live. What if I’d married Katie or Suzie instead of Charlotte? What if I’d studied economics rather than science? Taken this job rather than that?
We dream about the lost us: wake up in a sweat wondering whether we’re on the right track; regret all the things we did and the things we didn’t. The sins we committed and the sins we didn’t.
Some claim to be philosophic. ‘Je ne regrette rien,’ sang Edith Piaf. ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention’: Frank Sinatra (who said he hated the song; perhaps he regretted singing it; but he went on singing it and cashing the cheques).
But these statements sound so bold because they’re dishonest: none of us can escape the hollow feeling of regret. If we could, we wouldn’t think to sing of it. The problem is that we’re wiser now than we were, and yet we’ve already made our biggest choices. And the choices we’ve yet to make?
They’re haunted by the spectre of future regrets. The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) dogs our risky investment decisions, our optimistic property purchases, and our craziest choices. Why do marketers spam us with messages that the sale closes in three days? ‘Don’t miss out.’ As if not buying that jumper is going to haunt our dreams.
So, what do we regret in life? Scientists have interviewed thousands, and one thing is clear. We regret what we didn’t do rather than what we did. It’s true of the intellectually gifted and normal people; it’s true whether we’re American, British, Chinese, Japanese or Russian.
This isn’t so surprising. The things we didn’t do, the grand risks we didn’t take, can fill our imagination more readily than the things we did do: the consequences of which are drearily real.
More surprising, perhaps, are the types of things that we regret. Researchers classed these into two groups. The first are our moral regrets: our failure to do what we ought to do. The second are more grasping. They’re our failure to live up to what we could be, to follow our dreams and be a star.
It’s supposed to be common knowledge that the first are the more poignant. On our death beds, we won’t regret time not spent with our boss or dollars not earned. Instead, we’ll be filled with remorse for the evenings we didn’t spend with our families, for the kind words that we didn’t give, for the good deeds we didn’t do.
Technically, the studies of over six hundred people by researchers in New York can’t tell us what well feel when we’re dying. The researchers didn’t interrogate the mortally ill. But across six studies, they asked everybody from students to the middle-aged what their biggest regrets in life were.
And overwhelmingly, people’s biggest regret wasn’t an ethical mistake. Instead it was a failure to try and have what they wanted to have. So perhaps George Best was sincerer than Piaf or Sinatra. ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’
Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.
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