The Road Not Taken Is the One We Regret : Lifestyles: In the long run, it’s when we fail to take a chance and seize the day that we most disappoint ourselves, researchers say.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
When people sit back and take stock of their lives, what do they regret more: the things that failed, such as a romance that foundered, the wrong career path, bad grades in school?
Or do they most regret what they failed to try, in short, what poet Robert Frost called the road not taken?
A small but growing body of research points to inactions--failing to seize the day--as the leading cause of regret in people’s lives over the long term. These findings are painting a new portrait of regret, an emotion proving to be far more complex than once thought.
Regret is a “more or less painful, emotional state of feeling sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses, transgressions, shortcomings or mistakes,” says University of Michigan psychologist Janet Landman, author of several studies and a book on regret.
As a culture, “we are so afraid of regret, so allergic to it, often we don’t even want to talk about it,” Landman said.
The fear is, she said, that “it will pull us down the slippery slope to depression and despair.”
But psychologists say that regret is an inevitable fact of life.
“In today’s world in which people arguably exercise more choice than ever before in human history, it is exceedingly difficult to choose so consistently well that regret is avoided entirely,” note Cornell University psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec, writing in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Regret involves two distinct types of emotions, what Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “hot” and “wistful.”
“Hot” regret is the quick anger felt after discovering that you have made a mistake, like denting a car fender, accidentally dropping a prized vase and seeing it smash into a thousand pieces or buying a stock that suddenly plummets in price.
“This is when you want to kick yourself, and it is associated with a short-term perspective,” Kahneman said.
Wistful regret, on the other hand, comes from having a longer-range perspective. It is a kind of sad, bittersweet feeling that life might be better or different if only certain actions had been taken.
“Typically, it means something that they should have done and didn’t do,” Kahneman said. That might mean having the courage to follow a different career, gambling on starting a new business or pursuing what appears to be a risky romance.
Psychologists have focused on “hot” regret as the type most common to people’s experience. But a growing body of research suggests that wistful regret may figure more prominently in people’s lives over the long term.
Asked to describe their biggest regrets, participants in a series of studies on regret “most often cited things that they failed to do,” said Gilovich. “People said things such as:
“ ‘I wish I had been more serious in college.’
“ ‘I regret that I never pursued my interest in dance.’
“ ‘I should have spent more time with my children.’ ”
Failure to seize the moment was cited by a 2-to-1 ratio over other types of regrets, the researchers found in a study of 77 participants. The group, which included retired Cornell professors, nursing-home residents, Cornell undergraduates and assorted adult clerical and custodial staff members at the university, listed more than 200 missed educational opportunities, romances and career paths as well as failing to spend more time with relatives, pursue a special interest or take a chance.
One of the most poignant examples, Gilovich said, came from a participant who could have helped a Jew escape from Europe during the Holocaust and did not.
“As troubling as regrettable actions might be initially, when people look back on their lives, it seems to be their regrettable failures to act that stand out and cause the most grief,” Gilovich and Medvec conclude.
Studies suggest that regrets about education are overwhelmingly the biggest. “Not getting enough education or not taking it seriously enough” is a common regret even among highly educated people, said Landman.
Tied for a distant second place are regrets about work or love. “People talk about having gotten into the wrong occupation, marrying too young, or that they wish their parents had never divorced or there was less conflict in their family or that their children had turned out better.”
Many people also express regrets about themselves. They may wish they had been more disciplined or more assertive or had taken more risks. The best example of this kind of regret, Landman said, is the lament of one of director Woody Allen’s characters: “I have only one regret, and that is that I am not someone else.”
What people don’t regret are events that seem to be beyond their control. Personal responsibility is “central to the experience of regret,” Gilovich and Medvec conclude. “People might bemoan or curse their bad fate, but they rarely regret it in the sense that the term is typically understood.”
Whether regrets increase with age is under debate.
Studies by Gilovich and Medvec found that older people expressed slightly more regrets than did younger individuals.
“Their findings might suggest that when you are at that fork in the road, if things don’t work out for you, your regret for not having taken the other road will increase,” Kahneman said.
But there is no solid evidence, he said, that “regret increases as life goes on.”
But regrets are likely to change throughout life.
For example, young women “are more likely to report family-oriented regrets than young men,” said Landman. But by middle-age, “men are more likely than women to report not spending enough time with their families,” she said.
And what do middle-aged women regret?
“Marrying too early and not getting enough education,” she said.