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Woulda, coulda, shoulda: the haunting regret of failing our ideal selves

Written by: Susan Kelly
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Forsaken dreams. Romantic interests not pursued. Securing a job near home rather than an adventurous position overseas.

Our most enduring regrets are the ones that stem from our failure to live up to our ideal selves, according to new Cornell research.

Psychologist Tom Gilovich and a former Cornell graduate student have found people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations and responsibilities.

The research, “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” was published in the April issue of the journal Emotion. Gilovich’s co-author was Shai Davidai, Ph.D. ’15, now at The New School for Social Research.

“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life,” said Gilovich, the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology. “The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you.

“To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact. But for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”

The research builds on the idea that three elements make up a person’s sense of self: the actual, ideal and the ought selves. The actual self is made up of the attributes a person believes they possess. The ideal self is the attributes they would ideally like to possess, such as hopes, goals, aspirations or wishes. The ought self is the person they feel they should have been based on duties, obligations and responsibilities. “Your ought self could be, ‘I ought to be a person who is healthier and should go to the gym more,’” Gilovich said.

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