Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and oftentimes it can lead to regret.
Some people have the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, and there is no point in having regrets.
But for so many of us, looking back on our lives can lead us to linger on one poignant moment or period when we wish we had done things differently, and that nagging question, “What if …?,” plays on repeat in our heads.
“This may sound a little melodramatic, but no matter how happy you are, at my age your regrets are countless,” writes Quora user Gary Teal in response to the question, “When people look back on their lives, what are common regrets they have?” “You have made decades’ worth of little miscalculations you can’t completely erase from your memory, as well as a number of big mistakes that made life permanently harder.”
Quora user Bradley Voytek points to a national survey about the regrets of a typical American, which found 13 common sources for regret. They are, in order: romance, family, education, career, finance, parenting, health, “other,” friends, spirituality, community, leisure, and self.
Vaughn Bell at Mind Hacks notes that there are two ways people frame their regrets: The things they did that they wish they hadn’t, and the things they wish they had done but didn’t.
“The difference between the two is often a psychological one, because we can frame the same regret either way — as regret about an action: ‘If only I had not dropped out of school;’ or as a regret about an inaction: ‘If only I had stayed in school.’
“Despite the fact that they are practically equivalent, regrets framed as laments about actions were more common and more intense than regrets about inactions, although inaction regrets tended to be longer lasting,” Bell writes.
Here are some of the most common regrets as chronicled by Quora users (answers have been edited for clarity):
'I regret that I never fell in love with someone who was in love with me, when that would have been easy for me to do.
'I regret being like an old song sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie: 'Must I go bound and you so free, Must I love one who doesn't love me, Must I be born with so little art, As to love the one who would break my heart?'' -- David Kahana
'For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to have kids. But in my younger years, I foolishly assumed that unlike certain accomplishments like a career, the marriage and kids thing would just happen.
'Well, they didn't. I dated plenty of people but never even thought about making family a priority. Then, in my late 30s, a bout with ovarian cancer left me permanently infertile.
'I think about the kids I never had every day, several times a day. I have a great relationship with my nieces and nephews, and volunteer at a children's hospital on a regular basis, but it's just not the same to be around other people's kids. I would love to adopt or be a foster mother, and hopefully be in a financial and domestic situation that would make this feasible one day.
'But again, not the same. And it pisses me off when people say, 'You're lucky you don't have kids, they're so much work, blah blah blah.' Yes, but a lot of things in life that are worthwhile are also so much work.
'I think the mothering instinct is so strong in some women that the knowledge that one will never get a chance to give birth and raise their own child goes beyond regret. One that a bar chart cannot capture. I can deal with most of my other regrets in life but am having a hard time dealing with this one.' -- Caroline Zelonka
'I regret not choosing to spend more time with my parents in my twenties. I lost my mother in 2000, and I feel the loss of the friendship we never had.
'She was very demanding, very strict, and from the perspective of a young man, very unreasonable. It turned out, as I live through middle age, that most of the ideals I have today ended up being the ones she put on me.
'Sometimes, after a setback, I feel the impulse to call her, and in the second or so that it takes for me to realise she isn't alive to speak to any longer, I realise how much I still need her.
'You cannot negotiate with death. It is final, often sudden, and personal. The last night I had with her, at a hospice in Chicago, I was exhausted and asked her if she minded if I went home. She immediately whispered that absolutely, I should rest, and to be careful driving home. I curled her fingers around the nurses call button, and kissed her on the forehead. I remember I felt some relief that I was leaving.
'I know it didn't make a difference, leaving at that time, or leaving a few hours later. She was going to die either way. But reflecting on that moment today I know then that I didn't understand how precious those minutes were, and how a door was being closed that would never open again.' -- Jim Wagner
'I wish I would have followed my dreams when I was in my late teens and deciding what I wanted to take in University. Had I made the decision to believe in myself -- my talents, my passions, and my dreams, instead of worrying about getting a good job, my life would be very different today.
'I realise it's never too late to be true to yourself and honour your dreams, but I do wish I could talk to me 20+ years ago. If I could, I would tell my young self to research all of my options before diving into a (very expensive) post-secondary education that resulted in nothing more than mounting student loans and a place in the job hunting pack.
'I would have told myself that there is no such thing as job security and that I'd be better off putting the money I saved for post-secondary education into a small business where I would receive a real education while (most likely) making a very good living.
'Post-secondary education is a major investment, like buying a house. It shouldn't be rushed into, but pursued when you are ready and know what you want to do and what you want to get from it. Yes, if I could go back to my youth I would have listened to my soul and began writing screenplays. Who knows what kind of treasures I could've given the world if only I had listened to my heart instead of everyone else.' -- Stacey Grewal
'Much of the regrets that people accumulate are rooted in poor mental health. There are literally millions of people who live with undiagnosed low-level depression that emerges through their 20s and becomes increasingly severe and debilitating in their 30s. For me, this manifested itself in the form of self-medication with drugs and alcohol initially, followed by ill-fitting career choices. Over time, negativity comes to dominate the internal monologue and you begin to despise and short-change yourself. This can lead to many of the inactions that we later regret. Self-doubt is a spiral of inertia and paralysis.
'Some never recover, some do. For me, recovery began with the realisation that something was seriously wrong. Mental illness carries a stigma that keeps us from being honest with ourselves about what's really going on. Seeking professional help is important, but you do most of the work on your own and it can't begin until you admit that you're unwell and choose to take action.' -- Michael Weston