Are You Living Your Best Life? Chances Are You're Not—And It Will Be Your Biggest Regret

Stop what you're doing for a moment and think about your life right now. Are you being your best self? Or are you burying your hopes and dreams in a to-do list that only seems to get longer?

According to a new psychology paper published in the journal Emotion, people regret failing to live up to their goals and aspirations far more than failing to live up to their duties and obligations.

The researchers imagine a person in terms of their "actual" self, their "ought" self and their "ideal" self. The "actual" self is built up of all those qualities a person believes they have. The "ought" self is made up of attributes a person thinks they should have—maybe they should be a bit healthier, for example. The "ideal" self, on the other hand, is a made up of those attributes a person dreams of possessing.

The psychologists surveyed hundreds of people over six studies, asking them to list their regrets in life according to the "ought" and "ideal" categories.

Participants reported "ideal" regrets much more often than "ought" regrets (72 percent compared to 28 percent.) The majority of participants listed more "ideal" than "ought" regrets, and a massive 76 percent named an "ideal" regret as the biggest they faced.

"When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we're heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we'd like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life," study author and psychologist Tom Gilovich at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, said in a statement.

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Although "ought" regrets can still be painful, people's deepest regrets seemed to focus on the gap between their "actual" self and their "ideal" self. "The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction," Gilovich explained in the statement. "It's 'I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.'"

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People jump on a beach in front of the sun. Getty Images

One reason "ought" regrets may cause less distress than "ideal" regrets, the researchers suggest, is because people are more likely to address them. "Ought" expectations are often more concrete than our romantic and far-off dreams. "People are more likely to take active steps to rectify regrets related to their ought selves, so those regrets are more likely to be filed away as resolved and thereby seem less bothersome with time," Gilovich said.

But when it comes to certain "ideal" goals like being a good parent or a good teacher, the target is less concrete. "There aren't clear guideposts," Gilovich added. "And you can always do more."

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He recommends people stop waiting to be inspired and just go for it. "Don't wait around for inspiration, just plunge in," Gilovich said in the statement. "Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity."

It's also important not to worry about what other people might think, he said. "People are more charitable than we think and also don't notice us nearly as much as we think...If that's what holding you back—the fear of what other people will think and notice—then think a little more about just doing it."

So go on: learn French, take up the guitar and write the next great American novel.