"As people rise higher in our culture, there is a perception of greater opportunities," Roese said. "Paradoxically, the more opportunities you have, the more ways you can see how you could have gotten more . . . Opportunity fuels the regret experience."
So does this mean you should quit your desk job to realize your dream of working with horses or sailing the world?
Maybe, Roese said. In the survey, people were free to describe a short-term regret or a regret that lingered a lifetime.
Short-term regrets tended to be about things people did -- say, accidentally hitting "reply all" on an email, or forgetting to call Mom on Mother's Day.
But the long-lasting regrets were more often about things that people didn't do, such as never expressing their feelings to a loved one or taking a career risk.
"When you look to the recent past, you are more likely to kick yourself for blurting out something inappropriate at dinner or buying something you couldn't afford," he said. "When you look back at your own past to long ago, you are more likely to see things you should have or could have done. A lost love. A job you could have had."
Over time, people rationalize their actions, explaining away their mistakes, Roese pointed out. But when it comes to inaction, people forget the barriers that kept them from taking the action -- they only remember that they didn't try.
"When people reflect on the past, which is what regret does, we ruminate about the things that didn't go well but we don't savor the good times," said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. "We are much more impacted by the negative stuff."
And though regret can be painful, a life without regret isn't only near impossible, it would lack a fundamental emotion that spurs people to avoid future mistakes.
"Regret is an e
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