Opinion: What it is we will regret

What's missing?: One of the number one common regrets is romance and lost love.

What's missing?: One of the number one common regrets is romance and lost love.

They say no one on their deathbed ever regrets not spending more time at the office. Which is not to say we don't have other regrets, nor that we have to wait until we're drawing our last breath to have them. 

I can't tell you what you most regret – or will come to regret – but I can give you some big hints, using a study by two professors of psychology, Mike Morrison, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Neal Roese, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, which I learnt of through the PsyBlog website. The profs commissioned a nationally representative survey of 370 American men and women. The most common regrets they found were romance, lost love, 18 per cent; family, 16 per cent; education, 13 per cent; career, 12 per cent; finance, 10 per cent; parenting, 9 per cent and health, 6 per cent. That regrets about our relationships – 43 per cent by the time you combine romance, family and parenting – well-exceed working-life concerns – 35 per cent, when you combine education, career and finance – shouldn't surprise you.

It's well established by psychologists that the quality of our relationships is hugely important to our wellbeing. Far more important than how many bucks you make.

“We found that the typical American regrets romance the most. Lost loves and unfulfilling relationships turned out to be the most common regrets,” the authors say. “People crave strong, stable social relationships and are unhappy when they lack them; regret embodies this principle.”

The trouble isn't that most of us don't realise this in principle, I reckon, but that so many of us find it hard to remember in the struggle to get ahead in life, or even just derive satisfaction from our work – which psychologists know is another key source of “subjective wellbeing” (AKA happiness).

It's telling that women were more likely to have romance regrets, whereas men were more likely to have work regrets. Other research confirms women tend to value social relationships more, which suggests Cat Stevens (actually, Harry Chapin) knew what he was doing when he directed Cat's In The Cradle at the less-fair sex. Except that, for family-focused regrets, there were no significant differences according to sex, age, education or relationship status.

Men were more likely to have work-related regrets about career and education. People who lacked a romantic relationship had the most regrets about romance. Those who lacked a higher education had the most regrets under the heading of education. But here's a twist: those with high levels of education had the most career-related regrets. The authors suggest the higher your education, the more sensitive you are about how well you've fulfilled your aspirations.

Of course, our regrets come in two kinds: things we did but now wish we hadn't (known in more godly days as acts of commission) and things we didn't do but now which we had (acts of omission).

Turns out regrets about our actions are about as common as regrets about inaction, but regrets about inaction last longer – true for people of all ages.

Previous research on regret has mainly used samples of college students. This study, however, used a random sample representative of all Americans. Students worry most about education and career, and little about family but, as we've seen, older people acquire very different priorities. Here endeth the lesson. Now, back to work. It may not be more important, but it is more pressing.

Ross Gittins is a Fairfax economics editor.

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