Summary of our mini-survey on regret

Six early findings

  • Respondents overwhelmingly regretted things they didn’t do rather than things they did. My rough calculation was that regrets of omission (e.g., not attending a funeral) outnumbered regrets of commission (e.g., moving to a new city) by more than 3 to 1.
  • Among the most common specific regrets were not pursuing higher education (or not taking it seriously enough), turning down opportunities to travel, and missing final chances to connect with loved ones.
  • Another common – and especially intense – regret: Not getting out of a bad marriage. (I didn’t ask for people’s genders, but reading the accounts indicated that women were more likely than men to express this regret.)
  • Many of the regrets were moral failings earlier in life. People regretted bullying kids in school, cheating on tests, shoplifting from stores, and so on. A large number of people who expressed such regrets were in their 40s and 50s, suggesting they’ve been harboring these thoughts for decades.
  • One of the most common themes: People regretted living someone else’s life rather than being true to themselves.
  • A few people said they had no regrets. But a sizeable portion of those who offered that answer then went on to list a regret!

A few sample entries

“I was home for a visit from out of state with my baby while I was on maternity leave. My father asked me to stay longer with him and my mother. I turned him down. My return to work was on my mind. And I felt like I had all the time in the world. My mother died months later. My father was dead within five years. I regret that I did not stay.” (Age 57) 

“I was in sixth grade, and a bunch of kids were picking on another student. It was joking that just went too far for a couple of weeks. I did not participate, but knew it was wrong and never said anything.” (Age 33) 

“I regret staying in a bad marriage for 30 years. Should have gotten divorced long ago, & now realize it will just keep getting harder & harder to leave as I get older.” (Age 54)

“I quit taking piano lessons at age 12.” (Age 70) 

“Not considering other career choices. I decided I was going to be a lawyer around 8 years old. That’s what I did. I had no idea what being a lawyer meant, nor did I consider any alternative possibility.” (Age 41) 

“That I didn’t enjoy the moment more. I was always working hard to create a better future, but that is perpetual. There were a lot of missed opportunities for awesome moments and memories in high school and college.” (Age 28) 

“Not trusting my gut and cancelling my first wedding. I knew from the moment I sent the invitations that I didn’t want to get married.” (Age 48)

“In the summer before freshman year of college, I sent a letter to the golf coach requesting to try out for the team as a walk on. I didn’t receive a response to the letter. I interpreted the lack of response as a rejection and never made the effort to see out the coach after I arrived on campus and make the request in person.” (Age 57)

“Cheating on the man who is now my husband.” (Age 27)

I regret listening to my dad who said, ‘Women can’t be lawyers.‘ (Age 76)

“My regret is spending so much time on ‘what other people think’ and spending time ‘fitting in’ since I was very young. Only becoming an adult, I learned to do this less and less. And now I’m totally convinced the world is so much better if everybody could just be his or herself.” (Age 41)

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