Education, career, and romance top the list. In general we’re more inclined to regret things that offered us new opportunities.
In another paper Roese examined eleven other studies regarding regret, in which people ranked the parts of life they regret the most. Education was the biggest inducer of regret, followed by career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure. The rankings turned out to be remarkably consistent across studies of people in different age groups and locations. Roese thought education might consistently top the list because it is a part of life with endless opportunity, and opportunity breeds regret. “Partly, education connects a person to all other things in life—it connects to money, personal fulfillment, meeting people, igniting romance, and making friends,” Roese says. “Moreover, we have a chance throughout our lives to learn more, and to develop new skills for work and pleasure.” Feelings of dissatisfaction are strongest where the chances for corrective reaction are the most straightforward.
Freedom is great but can also be a breeding ground for opportunity-based regret:
Culture also plays a role in what Americans regret. “These findings are very much linked to the American idea of possibility and also the way that people from all walks of life can get ahead,” says Roese. Paradoxically, when people are controlled more by structure of society—in places where arranged marriage is common, for example—people have fewer regrets because they have less input. “In part, Americans are more miserable as a culture because we have the opportunities to fix things. So many choices can be a burden. American culture is built on lots of choices—things to buy, places to go, people to date. That brings both a pleasure and a dark side in that it gives more opportunity to feel regret.”
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