What do Most People Regret?

· September 13, 2018

Numerous studies have looked into answering the question: what do most people regret? One of these studies became famous. It studied people who were about to die because of terminal illnesses or just old age.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian expert in palliative care for terminally ill patients, decided to ask this directly. People are more honest and mature when they feel like their lives are about to end. When asked what they regretted, the most common answer was almost always the same: not having lived life to the fullest.

Ware felt like these answers were quite revealing, so she decided to write a book compiling her patients’ answers. She found five particular things that people regretted. From then on, her life changed.

People regret…

When Bronnie Ware asked this, almost all her patients included the phrase, “I wish I had…”. In other words, they almost all regretted not having done something, rather than having done something.

Old man with dove.


The five most common answers indicated that the major regrets are:

  • Not having been brave enough to do what they really wanted to do, but instead just fulfilled their obligations.
  • The second regret was having spent so much time working. Most of Ware’s patients said that their most valuable years were spent within the walls of an office.
  • The third reason was not having expressed their emotions. They regretted staying quiet when they should’ve spoken out. This refers as much to positive feelings as negative ones.
  • Another big regret had to do with not having looked for their old friends to talk about their lives. Childhood friends, even the closest ones, can frequently get left behind in life.
  • Finally, a large percentage of those interviewed regretted not having fought harder for their happiness.

As we can see, most regrets had to do with what wasn’t accomplished. In the list, no one regretted doing something wrong or making mistakes. They regretted not trying.

The ideal self

Cornell University did a more structured study on the feeling of regret and its motives. Just as with Bronnie Ware’s informal interviews, most regretted not doing something. In this case, the investigations went even further, analyzing why this was the case.

Woman and window.

According to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai, the directors of the study, it all has to do with the idea of the “ought self” and the “ideal self.” The “ought” regret, as the name suggests, is related to what everyone thinks is correct and morally desirable. It’s the sphere or ethical responsibilities that each person develops in accordance with their beliefs and values.

On the other hand, “the ideal self” corresponds with who we want to be, whether or not it matches up with the “ought self”. The “ideal self” contains our dreams, hopes, and of course, ideals. This is the model we use to become who we want. That is what we want to transform ourselves into.

Concrete reasons people have regrets

At the root of the concepts of the “ought self” and the “ideal self”, the Cornell studies managed to reach an interesting conclusion. When you betray the “ought self”, there’s a kind of immediate weight on your conscious. That’s why people try to fix or process this regret in concrete ways.

Let’s look at an example. Someone didn’t go visit their dying uncle, even when they knew that their uncle needed their help. When he died, the nephew felt really guilty for not having lived up to his “ought self”. However, he started reflecting. He examined the reasons why he didn’t visit, maybe cried at the funeral, or symbolically asked forgiveness for what he failed to do.

Dove in hand.

With “the ideal self”, this doesn’t happen. People don’t have any rituals for forgiving themselves for not having been a famous astronaut or not getting on that boat to Antarctica. These things stayed on their conscience simply as a wish that never came true. At the end of their lives, they regret not having made their dreams a reality because regret is a way to process what never happened.