Family Matters

To Avoid Regret, Put Romance First, Work Second

You'll feel much worse about forgetting to buy flowers on Valentine's Day than cutting out of work early, according to a study about what Americans regret most.

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and we have some bad news for workaholics: according to new research, you should be prioritizing your love life over your job.

That’s not just because it will make your significant other happy; Neal Roese, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has found that life’s most intense regrets center around personal relationships, not careers.

Roese and colleagues asked 500 U.S. adults about their biggest regrets then analyzed their remorse to figure out what parts of their lives were most directly impacted. They discovered that the most deep-seated regrets focused on personal relationships — including romantic unions, but also interactions with close family members, particularly parents, siblings and children.

“Regrets are actually a window into the concerns and goals most important to us,” says Roese. “We are fundamentally social creatures and draw a lot of psychological sustenance out of being connected to others. The regrets we are measuring are a reflection of that.”

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Study participants were asked to describe regrets that they considered both strong and weak, along with the situation that surrounded the regret. Analysis revealed that regrets involving love — think ending a relationship or cheating — rankle more than those related to less intimate choices such as dropping out of college or quitting a job. The study, published online last week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, reported that love regrets outnumbered work regrets by more than 2 to 1 — 56% to 20% — in some of the comparisons. The more intense a regret, the more likely it was to be connected to personal relationships.

That may be because personal regrets such as romantic remorse draw their intensity from their association with a person’s desire to belong. After all, who wants to be on the outside looking in?

What that means in general is that being bad at keeping in touch with old friends or forgetting to buy Valentine’s chocolates for your sweetie has the potential to make you feel worse — much worse — than making a mistake at work. “As you are thinking about how to feel good about your life, the thing you will feel most strongly about is protecting and strengthening your personal relationships,” says Roese.

As for what that means more specifically on a day like today, Roese has some words of advice: “It’s alright to let some work stuff slide,” he says. And, by the way, don’t forget the flowers.

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