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Nip Regret in the Bud

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Practical suggestions to avoid that nagging sensation of regret.

In one of the most famous lines in cinema history, an anguished Marlon Brando, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, says “I coulda been a contender.” He coulda been somebody, but he got “a one-way ticket to Palookavilla.” No line better sums up regret than that one. I thought of that line when I saw a recent study out of Cornell University, that looked at what type of regrets most haunt people, and for this week’s Healthy Habit, thought we could explore ways to avoid that nagging sensation of “coulda, shoulda.”

In the study, psychologists found that there are three elements that make up our sense of self: the actual, the ideal, and the ought selves. Our actual is the traits we believe we actually have. Our ideal self is goals, hopes and dreams we have, such as going back for a master’s degree or hiking a long trail solo. The “ought” self is the person we think we should be, based on our responsibilities and obligations, such as attending a bat mitzvah or caring for an aging parent. The researchers found that, by far, the biggest area of regret for people lay in the realm of ideal-self failures. They had some practical suggestions for how to address this.

  1. There is no lightning bolt. “Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in,” writes the study author, psychologist Tom Gilovich. “Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”
  2. Don’t worry about how it looks. If you want to sing, sing. If you want to dance, dance. “People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” Gilovich wrote. “If that’s what holding you back—the fear of what other people will think and notice—then think a little more about just doing it.”

But what if you’re mostly satisfied with life, but want to stretch yourself a little with some new goals? There’s inspiration for exploration everywhere. Look for things like an Atlas Obscura Society, which seeks out new travel and local adventures; or a random, beautiful blog (I’ve recently discovered the Art of Abandonment). Sign up for a writing challenge or check out some of the cool ways to learn a new language. After all, life is short. The last thing you want is a one-way ticket to Palookaville.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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