Therese Huston is a cognitive psychologist at Seattle University and author of How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2016).
Imagine this scenario, adapted from the book Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. You’re going through some old boxes, and you find a bundle of savings bonds that your grandma purchased for you when you were a child. You think about cashing in some of them and investing them in Company A, but you’re busy and never get around to it. You learn two years later that if you had invested in Company A, you’d be $1,000 richer.
Now imagine a second scenario. You find some forgotten savings bonds from your grandma tucked away in a box. You decide to cash them in and invest the money in Company B. Two years later, you learn that if you had just left them alone to continue collecting dust and interest, you’d be $1,000 richer.
In both scenarios, you made a mistake. The question is, which mistake causes you greater regret in the long run? Research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky shows that most of us, nine out of ten, expect to feel more regret in the second scenario, when we invested badly. No one wants to look or feel like a fool, and foolish action seems much worse than foolish laziness. Most of us would rather be teased for being boring, for refusing to get onto the dance floor than for strutting out there and doing something embarrassing.
But here’s what’s surprising: most of us would be wrong, at least in the long term. Research study after study shows that we do have short-lived regrets for the dumb things we did, but those regrets fade quickly, usually within two weeks. But the regrets for things we didn’t do, the missed opportunities? Those last for years.
A team of researchers at Cornell University asked people in their seventies, “What would you do differently if you could live your life over?”
Some people regretted their actions: “I shouldn’t have gotten married so young,” or “I should never have taken up smoking.”
But four times as many people described things they wish they’d done, actions they wished they’d taken.
“I should have finished college.”
“I should have aimed higher in my career.”
Or “I was too meek—I should have been more assertive.”
We think we’ll regret what we do, but most of us have bigger regrets for the things we didn’t do, when we didn’t invest our time, money, or energy.
One of my most poignant opportunities to act came about 14 years ago. I’d interviewed for a job that would require me to move across the country to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They made me a generous offer, and I had seven months before I had to pack up and leave.
There was just one problem with leaving Portland: I’d never actually lived there.
For the 2 ½ years I’d lived in the Pacific Northwest, I had lived in a cookie-cutter apartment complex in the suburbs. My neighborhood consisted of a 7-lane divided highway lined with car dealerships on one side and lumber suppliers on the other. Great for my commute, terrible for anything else. No coffee roasters, no craft breweries, no sidewalks, and certainly no mustachioed men like those you see on Portlandia. It could have been Toledo, Ohio, and you wouldn’t have known the difference.
If I wanted to leave the Pacific Northwest with no regrets, I needed to move to Portland. It was the coolest city I knew, and I’d always imagined living there. Should I have done it sooner? Probably, but now was my chance.
My work colleagues questioned my sanity. You’re moving across the country, but first, you’re moving seven miles east? For seven months? Six, actually. I had used up a month deciding.
I found a basement apartment I could afford one block off NW 23rd Street, the hippest of the hip. The apartment’s low ceiling was a maze of banging water pipes, and the tiny windows let in almost no light, but it didn’t matter. Now the streets in my neighborhood were lined with boutiques and upscale dessert shops, and people rode single-speed bikes and sat in doorways, reading books. I walked those sidewalks every day.
Was it inconvenient to upend my life twice in six months? Of course. I lost several weekends packing and unpacking boxes. I broke several fragile items in my haste; one set of hand-blown wine glasses, a gift, never made it to Pittsburgh.
Was it worth it to live in a place I’d always dreamed of? Absolutely. Not a single regret. I could replace wine glasses, but I couldn’t replace an experience.
I research decision-making, and in my interviews, people often describe the regrets looming around what they didn’t do. One woman softly described her regrets about not pursuing her first true love. She even showed me an old picture of him. Another said she regretted not negotiating her first job offer because she then felt undervalued for years. Three people said, “I regret that I didn’t leave my last job sooner.”
We regret not acting when we had the chance, or we regret waiting too long. We regret not reaching out to a sibling, not pursuing that master’s degree, or not standing up to a bully at work. We don’t have as many regrets about the things we chose to do. Our actions usually become things that were meant to be, and even our poor choices teach us something.
But why? Why don’t people have strong regrets for their actions, particularly actions that make their lives harder? Researchers believe that whenever we act, particularly when it’s a big decision such as getting married or quitting a job, we work the results of that decision into our life story and our understanding of who we are. It’s how we create meaning in our lives. I chose this, and yes, it created a real mess for me, but it also helped me become the person who stands here today.
Perhaps the most telling subject to study regret is divorce. Since divorce means a marriage has come to an end, and sometimes a costly, prolonged, and painful one at that, we might expect that divorced people regret ever getting married. What might you predict? That 75-80% of divorcees regret getting married? Maybe at least 50%? Go lower. One study of nearly 900 people who had been through a divorce found that only 39% of them regretted getting married.
Why would 6 out of 10 think a marriage that didn’t work was still a good choice? Ask a divorced friend if he regrets getting married, and he might say, “No, I have two wonderful kids,” or “I regret that we didn’t separate sooner, but I don’t regret getting married. I wouldn’t be the person I am now if it weren’t for that relationship.” As one woman said about the decision to marry her first husband, “Of course, I’d love to go back and whisper some advice into the ear of that 26-year-old, but I’m not sure I’d tell her, ‘Don’t do it.’”
Granted, we often regret our actions in the moment. You regret eating too much at dinner. You regret telling a joke if no one laughs. And plenty of people regret slipping in late for a meeting. But do they swear off tardiness forever? They may be prompt the rest of the day, but research predicts that within a month, they’ll revert to their old ways. Regrets for things we do are short-lived.
Normally, I study women’s decisions, but this is one finding that’s robust across genders. Most of us, men as well as women, regret the actions we fail to take longer and more intensely than the actions we take. And this finding isn’t special to the United States. We see the same pattern across a diverse range of cultures and social traditions, including in countries such as the UK, France, Japan, Russia, and China.
If we feel best about the actions we take, does that mean you should say yes to every opportunity? Of course not. Practically speaking, that’s impossible (and frankly, not enjoyable). But it’s worth paying attention to your big goals. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do and a door swings open, pay attention to it. Your mind can generate a dozen possible regrets, but in the end, ignoring that open door might very well be the biggest.