According to a recent study, people regret more what they did NOT do rather than what they did. In other words, sins of omission weigh more heavily on the mind than sins of commission.
The paper concluded: “In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions. But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.”
I wanted to test the validity of this finding by querying my students. Granted, most of them are only in their mid-20's and are too young to lament what they have NOT done, since they have plenty of time to DO it, unlike most people in their 80's or 90's.
Still, I wanted to probe their mind to see if even at a relatively young age, the burden of inaction began to pile up and influenced their outlook on life.
This was the question I posed to them: What is the one thing that you have NOT done in your life so far that you regret the most and that, if you could go back in time, you would definitely DO it?
And this is what poured forth from most of them, that they should have traveled to other countries when the opportunity came and when they had the time, instead of opting to earn money through part-time jobs.
Brian’s response was typical: “I regret most not traveling overseas after high school when I had fewer responsibilities: France, Italy, China. But now I am too busy with all the stuff of life!”
Diana: “Wish I traveled. I wish I took a break just for me to have some fun, instead of working all the time.”
Karen: “Not going to Europe with my school friends when I had the opportunity. Now it’s too late! Already I have so much responsibilities!”
Leslie: Not traveling when I was younger. So many places, beautiful people, good food!
Kemala was born in Indonesia and studied in Germany before migrating to United States. Her plaintive regret is palpable: “I am really sad that I did not travel in the countries of Europe when I was in Germany. I always thought, ‘I can do it later,’ but now it seems too late. Caught up with too many things! I went back to Indonesia and now I am in the US and I don’t know when I can travel in Europe.”
Liz has the same remorse: “Not going backpacking with my sister last summer in Europe. She had such a great time and came back a new person! I was too busy working and making money. Bad mistake. The experience would have been so much better!”
Fred is a successful businessman but cannot shake off his regret: "I should have traveled to other countries when I was younger in my 20’s. Now I am older (37) and established and vested in my company. It’s harder to step away and take vacations. With age, we slow down physically. Now I am tired, something I was not when I was younger.”
Yvonne looks back with sorrow at the decision she made two years back: “I had an opportunity to teach English to children in Korea. I didn’t do it and now I am busy with life here. I wish I did what I really wanted to but didn’t. It would have made so much difference, more to me than to those children.”
Melanie also regrets not traveling: “The farthest I have been to are Lake Tahoe and Carmel. I am currently saving up money to travel to Mexico to see my grandparents.”
We have all met or read about people whose lives were transformed by travel. Take veteran actor Robert Redford, 82, whose latest movie, The Old Man & the Gun, has just been released to theaters around the country. In an interview (TIME, October 15, 2018), he disclosed how, while growing up in lower-working-class environment in Los Angeles, he hung out with his high-school crowd who often got into trouble. But a certain wanderlust always gnawed at him. “I wanted to be in Paris. I wanted to be in Spain. So when I was about 19, I saved up enough money to last me for a year.” Redford left the United States. “That experience is what really changed my life, because then I saw the outside world.” His time away changed his view of the world and of his home country. It saved him from a life that could have splintered into many useless fragments. “When I went to Europe, I understood more about politics and about human nature.” This new perspective is what he attributes to his activism.
I held up this example to my students and told them to seize the next opportunity that came along and just go!
While not traveling was their biggest regret (some are determined not to repeat that mistake), there were other regrets of inaction too.
Amanda regrets not opening her own business when she could, her own fashion store. “Nut maybe I can still make my dream come true.”
Gutierrez regrets not completing his Bachelor’s Degree right after high school. “I decided to focus more on money, so I dropped out of San Jose State University. It is difficult returning to school later in a life of career and child.”
Diaz regrets not taking more risks. “I always played it safe, do what others told me to do. I promise to listen more to my guts and do what I want to do, not what others tell me to do. It’s true: no risk, no gain!”
Cheryl regrets not completing her education and getting a career when she was 25. “By now I would have had my own house, called my own shots. Instead, I got married after high school. I promised I would return after a few months. Did not happen. By the time I returned to school, 7 long years have passed! I am now a mom with babies and both my husband and I work and there is no time or fun for anything, with babies around!”
Perhaps the most poignant response came from Jonathan. “Even though I am young, the one thing I haven’t done in my life is give my parents some stability, like buying them a house or helping them retire. My parents work extremely hard and growing up, I gave them a very hard time. I just want to be able to pay for their hard work and show them how much I care for them. They are older, and I don’t want anything to happen to them before I can help them.”
I was compelled to tell Jonathan: “You still can!”
But for the most surprising response, at once baffling and filled with bathos, this one beat all other entries. Clark wrote: “I should have dated more. I waited until I was 25 and the first person I dated, I ended up marrying her. Because of my lack of dating, I never learned to kiss properly and be romantic enough, because I had no practice. My wife dislikes that about me. I wish I had dated more!”