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Regret is a universal emotion. All of us have felt it at one time or another, and all of us will feel it again at some point before the end.

While there is probably no way to eliminate regret entirely, we can learn something about it from our predecessors, and at least try to avoid making as many of the mistakes they had the good grace to make for us ahead of time.

No matter how unique we all feel, when you look at us — human beings, that is — as a group, broad patterns often become apparent. That is certainly the case when it comes to what we regret about our lives later on. There is ton of research out there about regrets.

I don’t know that you can see definitively any one universal biggest regret out there. All the findings are colored by culture, time period, how exactly the questions were asked, and a million other factors that can never entirely be controlled for. But there is a pretty apparent general theme across many of the major studies.

People’s biggest regrets tend to be about things they did not do. Maybe you never gathered up the courage to tell the one who got away how you really felt or perhaps you turned down that enticing overseas position just because there were so many seemingly good reasons to stay put at home. Of course, a big part of the reason such things become regrets in the first place is that it is easy to imagine a better outcome than what might have actually occurred when it comes to something that never in fact took place.

But I don’t think that ease we have with applying a little innate narcissism to hypothetical outcomes accounts for the entirety of this effect. Surely, some decisions we can make, and some alternatives we can actually decide to pursue, will reduce our long-term regrets.

One meta-analysis of regret-ranking studies, for instance, found that the most common regrets later in life often focus on education. People wish they would have stayed in school, or studied harder, or gotten another degree. This makes some sense intuitively. Although it can be difficult in the short term and will involve a lot of sacrifice to interrupt other events in life to go back to school, it’s an option that is theoretically on the table for almost everyone. Although I’m a big believer in trying to avoid massive debts to accomplish another degree, it’s not getting one that people seem to regret much more (talk to a recent law school graduate looking at their student loan balance and you might find some more immediate regrets, but those apparently fade over time).

Putting aside the specific type of life decision, enduring regret typically centers around failing to get closer to our ideal versions of ourselves. Long-term regrets are usually about an inaction that we perceive in hindsight as likely to have led to becoming a better individual.

“Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in,” said Tom Gilovich, psychologist and co-author of a major study on regrets. “Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”

Regrets can certainly be financial. Educational and career regrets absolutely have a financial component, and it’s easy to picture people regretting a failure to start saving for retirement earlier. But one thing seems abundantly clear: our big regrets almost never center directly around material acquisition.

So, if you’re going to save up for something, maybe pass on the new gas-guzzling SUV and save up for your next educational experience instead. Or, expand your horizons with a sojourn abroad. Above all, if a potentially positive opportunity presents itself, decide to take that step forward rather than rationalizing all the ways it makes sense to simply stay in your rut.

We’re never going to eliminate regret from our lives entirely. But, when presented with a choice, we could all benefit from asking ourselves more often, “Which path will bring me closer to becoming the person I want to be?” Asking yourself that question, I’ll wager, will never be among your regrets.

Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at jon_wolf@hotmail.com.

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