How To Avoid A Life of Regret

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Socrates said the definition of a good life is one you don’t regret on your deathbed.

I cannot think of a better way to sum up life than the one above. We are all here for a short time, but that time feels like an eternity. Thus, we do not act with a sense of urgency in our affairs.

We are slow to change. Slow to criticise ourselves and look deep within. There is always tomorrow, we can make changes then. For now, I wish to remain as I am.

Socrates also said that the “unexamined life is one not worth living.” To go through life without questioning what you are hoping to achieve is a travesty. Yet, we are all prone to doing this from time to time.

Regret is something we will all live with at some point. There are countless moments in life where we could have done something and didn’t, or taken a different path and it didn’t work the way we hoped.

Then there are times when we don’t follow our dreams and decide to take the safe route. Unless we rectify this at a later point we will always be left with a nagging sense of what if.

It is better to take a chance and fail, then never take that chance and be left to wonder what might have happened.

Regret Nothing

In an illuminating article, the writer Susie Steiner lists the top five regrets of the dying according to Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care.

The five regrets are simple and not as grand as you might think. They highlight that it is often the simple things in life that can cause the most regret. The five regrets were:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

When you look at those five regrets, I’m sure there are a few of them, if not all of them, that we can relate to. Even at my tender age, I emphasise with a number of them.

If regret is a common feeling among humans as we get older and look back on missed opportunities and time we cannot recover, is there a way we can avoid this?

Is it possible to live a life without regret?

To live a life devoid of regret is near impossible. You will always have pangs of regret from time to time, this is unavoidable. The question we should be asking ourselves is how do we spend our lives, so we do not end up filled with regret?

According to research by the psychologist Thomas Gilovich, we regret inaction more than action. It is not the things we do that we regret, but the things we don’t.

This fits in with the five regrets listed above. Even though working hard is an action, by working too much you are not acting on other wishes you may hold. They fade into the background as you carry on with your work.

Gilovich expanded on regret in further research, which denotes a distinction between the ‘ideal-self’ and the ‘ought-self’. The ‘ideal-self’ is the person you would be if you fulfilled all your desires and wishes, while the ‘ought-self’ is the person you’d be if you met your obligations to others.

What Gilovich found was that people regret ‘ideal-self’ failings more than ‘ought-self’ failures. Not following our dreams is more likely to leave us filled with regret than cheating or failing to visit a dying relative.

While these ‘ought-self’ failings appear awful, the reason we don’t regret them as much as ‘ideal-self’ failing is simple. The action needed to fix our ‘ought-self’ failings is easier than the action we need to take to solve our ‘ideal-self’ failings.

You might work harder to salvage your relationship after an affair, or you will promise to never neglect your elderly relatives again. Whereas, unfulfilled dreams are likely to remain just that, unfulfilled. They will remain in the background and eat away at you over the long run.

All of this comes back to Socrates’s point earlier on, the “unexamined life is one not worth living.” Inaction is inevitable when we do not examine our lives and ask ourselves important questions.

While we may not be able to stave off regret completely, by taking stock of our lives and taking action to improve them, we can mitigate it as much as possible.

The Takeaway

To avoid regret we must take action instead of being inactive. Life is too short to end up full of regrets in your last moments.

Life waits for no one. If you decline to take action you will find the world will change around you, and you will realise this one day when it could be too late.

The best way to avoid twinges of regret is to strive to live the life we desire. This is not practical advice for everyone, but it is better to have tried something and know the outcome than to be forever wondering what might have been.

“The nearest way to glory is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.” — Socrates

We have to remember that happiness is a choice. It is not something we stumble upon, it is something we can make a reality by clear and conscious decisions.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, or you want to do something, but you aren’t sure if you should, there is one simple question to ask yourself.

Will I regret it if I don’t do this?

This simple question is what you should ask yourself when you are faced with these situations. There is no simpler method for avoiding regret and living the life you desire.

Otherwise, you could look back on life with sadness and regret.

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