Education is the number one life regret, accounting for 32.2% of all reported regrets (SD = 1.89). This is a strikingly consistent finding, confirmed by a wide margin in all but two data sets (those exceptions being Landman et al., 1995, and Data Set 3 ofLandman & Manis, 1992).
Educational regrets were things like “should have stayed in school, should have studied harder, should have gotten another degree.” In other words, people wish they’d worked harder. After education, people regret their careers, romance, parenting, self, and leisure. In contrast, few people have regrets related to finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, or community: “the remaining six regrets were so low in frequency as to be effectively inconsequential.”
In short, we probably shouldn’t ignore Ware’s advice, all we need to do is reverse it:
- Conform to expectations.
- Work and study harder.
- Bottle up your feelings.
- Don’t stay in touch with old friends.
- Don’t worry so much about happiness.
One hypocrisy to always keep in mind about social class, is that people earn social status brownie points by A) earning lots of money and moving up in high status jobs, and B) simultaneously paying lots of lip service to the idea that money and good jobs are superficial and don’t matter much. People do this all the time; watch for it.
Sounds a lot like the satisficers from my post on the middle class. The study’s authors draw this conclusion:
Opportunity breeds regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed. Rankings of life regrets, interesting in and of themselves, point to this deeper theoretical principle. Life regrets are a reflection of where in life people see opportunity, that is, where they see the most tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal.
In other words: regrets are a luxury, not a truth-tracking emotion. Enjoy them as the mixture of nostalgia and tenderness that they are, but don’t succumb to the fantasy that they necessarily track better choices.