Study Shows Why Not Following Your Dreams Could Actually Be A Problem

"... a person focused on her ideal self is more likely to lose sleep over her 'wouldas' and 'couldas' than her 'shouldas.'"

In life, we're often torn between the person we want to be and the person we ought to be. Yet, while many hesitate to take the risks associated with becoming their "ideal self," a new study notes that people inevitably regret not pursuing their passion

Inspired by research published in the 1990s, psychologist Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University — along with his colleague Shai Davidai of The New School for Social Research — built upon his original study, which established that regrets often evolve from what people hadn't done, by looking into the content of people's regrets instead of how they came to be. According to the new research published in Emotion, our most enduring regrets grow from not living up to our "ideal selves" (i.e. not becoming the person we wanted to be), as opposed to not living according to our "ought selves" (i.e. the person we should've been based on our duties and responsibilities).

Researchers began by explaining the difference between regrets concerning the "ideal self" (not achieving goals they had set for themselves, their dreams, and ambitions) and the "ought self" (not meeting the norms and rules they had for themselves or fulfilling their obligations to others), before asking participants to list, name, and categorize their regrets. Across the six different studies conducted as part of this project, participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72 percent vs. 28 percent). They also mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far (57 percent vs. 43 percent). When asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were also more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self than their ought self (76 percent vs. 24 percent).


"Our work is the first to show that people's most prominent life regrets more often involve failures to live up to their ideal self than their ought self," the researchers said. They also added that the work "is the first to document the role played by behavioural and psychological coping mechanisms in people's tendency to regret their failures to live up to their ideal selves."

According to the British Psychological Society Research Digest, these new results are also backed up by anecdotal accounts from patients nearing the end of their lives included in the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by palliative nurse Bronnie Ware: "When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled," she wrote. "Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices that they had made, or not made."

However, Gilovich and Davidai still recommend that people proceed with caution, as the best way to live depends on how much weight you place on your ought self vs. your ideal self.

If you place a premium on your ought self, you "would be wise to minimise [your] regrets by thinking twice before forging ahead [and seizing the moment]" they suggest. However, "if one is an adventurous soul guided by her ideal self, she might indeed end up happier by seizing the day and not looking back. As we have shown in this research, a person focused on her ideal self is more likely to lose sleep over her 'wouldas' and 'couldas' than her 'shouldas'."

Despite this research, however, knowing what you want and pursuing that passion are two different things. Here are some inspirational quotes that will give you the gumption to go for your goals:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." — Mark Twain

"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself." — Soren Kierkegaard

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." — Anais Nin

"The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you. Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." — William Jennings Bryan

"Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cover image via  Song_about_summer / Shutterstock


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.