What Do People Most Regret? — The Paths They Failed to Take



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What Do People Most Regret? — The Paths They Failed to Take



When people sit back and take stock of their lives, do they re­gret the things that failed, such as a romance that foundered, the wrong career path chosen, bad grades in school? Or do they most regret what they failed to try?

A small but growing body of research points to inaction — fail­ing to seize the day — as the leading cause of regret in people's lives over the long term. These findings are painting a new portrait of re­gret, an emotion proving to be far more complex than once thought.

Regret is a "more or less painful emotional state of feeling sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses, transgressions, short­comings or mistakes," says University of Michigan psychologist Janet Landman, author of several studies and a book on regret.

"As a culture, we are so afraid of regret, so allergic to it, often we don't even want to talk about it," Landman says. "The fear is that it will pull us down the slippery slope of depression and despair."

But psychologists say that regret is an inevitable fact of life.

"In today's world, in which people arguably exercise more choice than ever before in human history, it is exceedingly difficult to choose so consistently well that regret is avoided entirely," say Cor­nell University psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec.

Regret involves two distinct types of emotion, what psycholo­gists call "hot" and "wistful". Hot regret is quick anger felt after discovering that you have made a mistake, like denting your car, accidentally dropping a prized vase and seeing it smash into a thousand pieces, or buying a share that suddenly plummets in price. This is when you want to kick yourself, and it is associated with a short-term perspective.

Wistful regret, on the other hand, comes from having a longer range perspective. It is a bittersweet feeling that life might have been better or different if only certain actions had been taken. Typically, it means something that people should have done but didn't do. That might mean having the courage to follow a diffe­rent career, gambling on starting a new business or pursuing what appears to be a risky romance.

Psychologists have focused on hot regret as the type most common to people's experience. But a growing body of research suggests that wistful regret may figure more prominently in peo­ple's lives over the long term.

Asked to describe their biggest regrets, participants most of­ten cited things they failed to do. People said such things as "I wish I had been more serious in college", "I regret that I never pur­sued my interest in dance", "I should have spent more time with my children".

In a study of 77 participants, the researchers found that fai­lure to seize the moment was cited by a 2 to 1 ratio over other types of regret.

The group, which included retired professors, nursing-home residents, undergraduates and staff members at Cornell Univer­sity, listed more than 200 missed educational opportunities, ro­mances and career paths, as well as failing to spend more time with relatives, pursue a special interest or take a chance.

"As troubling as regrettable actions might be initially, when people look back on their lives, it seems to be their regrettable fai­lures to act that stand out and cause most grief," Gilovich and Medvec conclude.

Studies suggest that regrets about education are overwhel­mingly the biggest. "Not getting enough education, or not taking it seriously enough, is a common regret even among highly educated people," says Janet Landman.

Tied for a distant second place are regrets about work or love. People talk about having gotten into the wrong occupation, marry­ing too young, or that they wish their parents had never divorced, or there were fewer conflicts in their family, or that their children had turned out better.

Many people also express regrets about themselves. They may wish they had been more disciplined or more assertive or had taken more risks. The best example of this kind of regret is the lament of one of Woody Allen's (American comic actor and director) charac­ters, "I have only one regret, and that is that I am not someone else."

What people don't regret, however, are events that seem to be beyond their control. Personal responsibility is central to the expe­rience of regret, according to Gilovich and Medvec. "People might

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bemoan or curse their bad fate, but they rarely regret it in the sense that the term is typically understood."

Their studies found that older people expressed slightly more regrets than did young people. There is no solid evidence that re­gret increases as life goes on but regrets are likely to change throughout life.

For example, according to Janet Landman, young women are more likely to report family oriented regrets than young men. But by middle age men are more likely than women to regret not spend­ing enough time with their families.

And what do middle-aged women regret? Marrying too early and not getting enough education.

Alan Stanton, Susan Morris Fast Track to СЛ.Е.

Longman, 1999

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Philosophy and Common Sense

Philosophy has always existed in a kind of tension between common sense and the construction of theories about the nature of reality. Philosophy arises out of common sense, but philosophy of­ten goes well beyond common sense in working out theories which seem to be implied or suggested by common sense. In the end, how­ever, the ultimate court of appeal for the philosopher is again com­mon sense and ordinary reasonableness. As one philosopher put it, it is like an airplane which takes off from the ground to fly high in the sky, but which must ultimately return again to earth.

Often the two forces which make up this tension — the ten­dency to speculate widely and freely and the common sense to pull back to earth — are fairly equally balanced, and philosophy is both constructive and critical. But when either gains the advantage for a time, philosophy becomes predominantly critical or constructive.


Some philosophers and some philosophies, we said were primarily critical, concerned with defining our terms, analyzing our assump­tions, getting our arguments straight, and less concerned with deve­loping theories or getting the "right" answers. Other philosophers and philosophies were primarily constructive in the sense that their main aim was to answer questions, to discover the truth, and to state and defend theories about these answers. What we are now saying is that in the twentieth century there was first a concentration almost exclu­sively on philosophy as critical, broken only in the past fifteen years or so by a gradual return to a more constructive philosophy of sub­stantive issues and the attempt to provide answers to basic questions.

Broadly speaking, the history of the twentieth-century philosophy can be characterized as the swing of the pendulum away from self-con­fident theorizing on the most basic issues of life toward a more cau­tious and more limited conception of philosophy as clarifying common sense ideas which everyone already possesses. That movement was fol­lowed by the reverse swing of the pendulum away from self-doubt and back to normative issues and systematic theory building.

Not only in philosophy but more generally, the first half of the twentieth century has been characterized by self-doubt and scepticism especially concerning the role of reason and its ability to ultimately know and control reality. The enormous and seem­ingly senseless human waste in the World War I brought about widespread disillusionment concerning the contribution of scien­tific and technological progress to human happiness and general well-being. Marxists, Freudians and social Darwinians explained reason as a product of irrational factors; this served to humble and deflate reason. What confidence remained in the power of reason was largely confined to science and technology. In the areas of va­lues and meaning there was a growing feeling among many people of emptiness, hopelessness and meaninglessness.

If philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century aban­doned the traditional role of philosophy in providing answers to the most basic questions, what new role did philosophers see for philosophy? Primarily that of clarifying or analyzing; ideas which we already have, either from science or simply from common sense and ordinary language. In general, the twentieth century saw the emerging influence of science over all aspects of life. Most disci­plines wanted to share in its prestige and success. If in the Middle Ages philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, in the twentieth century philosophy had become the mistress of sci­ence, reduced to clarifying the practice of science.

Science can provide answers to factual questions. Philosophy, through the development of new logical tools, assists in the pro­cess, though indirectly, by analyzing the scientists' concepts and in neatly rearranging their conclusions into a more comprehensive system of ideas. And just as the scientist rejected value questions, philosophers in the early part of the twentieth century tended to renounce the attempt to answer normative questions (What is jus­tice? What is the best way for people to live?) in favour of a metaethical analysis of the meaning of ethical terms. Not, "What is good?" but "What does the word good mean?"

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Intrepid Interpreters

Strain, exhaustion and embarrassment are just some things interpreters must put up with. BBC radio producer, Miriam Newman, takes a look at this challenging career.

April 1998. BBC English

At the European Commission in Brussels, they have a joke about the work interpreters do — "Languages," they say, "have nothing to do with interpretation, but it helps to know them." Anyone thinking of becoming an interpreter would do well to bear this in mind. Translating languages, especially in a political con­text, involves far more than mere linguistic ability.

To work in an international organisation, such as the United Nations (UN) or the European Commission, you need to be accre­dited by one of the various international translators' or interpre­ters' associations. To achieve this, you must undergo rigorous and lengthy training, either at an accrediting organisation's own school, or on a post-graduate course at university.

But a qualification in languages is not the only route into the job. At the European Commission, for example, a recent intake of trainee interpreters included several with degrees in subjects like economics, linguistics, philosophy, law and, of course, languages.

To become a successful interpreter, candidates need to be at a high level in between three and five languages. However, irrespective of how many languages they speak, they will only be required to trans­late from their acquired languages into their mother tongue.

Most important is their ability to manipulate their own lan­guage. With this skill, and a lot of practice, they will be able to clearly communicate information or messages which have been ex­pressed in a very different way in another language.

At London's University of Westminster, candidates get of­fered a place on the interpreters course, if they can show that they have "lived a bit", in the words of one lecturer. Young people who have just left university often lack sufficient experience of life.

The University also looks for candidates who have lived for a long time in the countries where their acquired languages are spo­ken. They are also expected to have wide cultural interests and a good knowledge of current affairs. This broad range of interests is essential in a job which can require interpreting discussions of dis­armament on Monday, international fishing rights on Tuesday, multi-national finance on Wednesday, and the building and con­struction industry on Thursday.

Interpreters also rely on adrenalin — which is generated by the stress and challenges of the job — to keep them going through their demanding schedules. Many admit that they enjoy the buzz of adrenalin they get from the job, and it's known that their heart rates speed up while they are working.

Interpreters also agree that it helps to be a good actor. Pre­tending to be someone else is a very good way of absorbing unfa­miliar issues so that they are able to reconstruct them in another language. But there is a paradox here because, unlike actors who perform in front of an audience, interpreters are usually unseen, hidden behind glass in a soundproof booth.

Yet, while interpreters may be seldom noticed, they are al­ways looking carefully at the people for whom they are interpret­ing. In particular, they are looking at the body language of the speaker, because they must also use this information when they translate what he or she has said.

The reason is because the signs given off by someone's facial expressions and body movements can help interpreters predict what is going to be said, as well as help them translate things which cannot be explained properly in the target language. One thing all interpreters look out for are jokes. It's well known that humour is one of the most difficult things to convey in another language so most interpreters don't try. When a joke is being made, many simply say, "the delegate is telling a joke. The inter­preter can't possibly translate it, but I'm sure the delegate would be very pleased if you laughed... now."

Proverbs are another feature of language which cause interpreter's problems. Instead of trying to translate them, it's not uncommon for interpreters to substitute one with a proverb of their own. "Never boil an egg twice" is typically greeted with murmurs of "how wise" and nods of approval, leaving all sides pleased with themselves and each other.

The work of interpreters has been fundamental to the success of institutions like the UN and the European Union.

These multi-national organisations are founded on the princi­ple that talk is better than war. Yet, without interpreters, the talking that brings nations closer together would not be possible.

It's also a job with its own risks and excitement. Interpreters are needed in war zones as well as in centres of international diplo­macy, like the UN.

But today, new technology is threatening to change the way interpreters work. Instead of attending conferences in Beijing, Buenos Aires or Birmingham, satellite communications and the Internet could restrict interpreters to a single base, like Geneva, where they would follow conferences using video and audio links. But most interpreters agree that a television screen can never pro­vide enough information. It would be much harder to interpret people's body language on television, or to absorb the atmosphere inside a conference hall.

Many feel that to remove interpreters from the place where the talking is actually going on would reduce their role to simply repeating words. That, they say, would be a mistake, because the binding element between interpreter and subject — which enables them to share the emotions behind the words and in the silence be­tween words — would be lost.

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