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Research in the Spirit of Sustainability (01/2015)

Few regrets in the face of death

Christoph Dieffenbacher

People who take time to think about death do not regret as much in their lives as one might imagine. One reason for this could be that we do not, when we come to contemplate our mortality, wish to endanger our self-esteem and so we somehow reinterpret the past.

Non, je ne regrette rien’, sang the French singer Edith Piaf, when she was already seriously ill with cancer, three years before her early death in 1963. In her chanson, which she dedicated to the French Foreign Legion, she says she regrets neither the bad things nor the good things in her life, neither past liaisons and cares nor past joys – all of this was of little concern. The saying, which suggests that life is too short to regret things past, is also widely known. And yet there is also the widespread belief that the more intensively we think about our own deaths the more we regret about our lives: either that we should have done some particular thing or other or that we should not have done it. Hence the current popularity of such books as 1000 Places to See Before You Die and The Top Five Regrets of The Dying – to name but two of these current bestsellers.

A threat to self-esteem

A team from the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Basel wanted to understand more about this and so they conducted a series of experiments designed to clarify the question of whether human beings, on contemplating death, are more or less likely to display regret. Those questioned were not, however, people who were actually terminally ill or dying but rather people chosen from a variety of age groups, and in fact more from younger age groups than anything else. Some will be astounded by the results of the study, now published in the periodical Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Lead author Selma Rudert summarizes the findings thus: “A person confronted with the topic of death develops fewer feelings of regret regarding their life so far.” Together with Professor Rainer Greifeneder, the young PhD student moved to Basel two and a half years ago from the University of Mannheim. She also conducts research on social exclusion as a threat to self-esteem.

For the study on regret, people were specifically asked in the course of three test series to imagine themselves in a situation shortly before their own deaths and to write down their thoughts regarding death. The test persons in the control group were asked to write down their thoughts on the (relatively harmless) topic of toothache. All participants were then distracted by way of another task and then, ultimately, were asked to record in writing everything that they regretted when they looked back at their lives. In one of the tests it was also possible for the participants to choose statements from a prepared list. This list included items such as ‘I regret not having spent enough time with my family’ or ‘I regret my decisions regarding my education or my professional career’.

Interviews online and in the lab

For all three groups, each of 85 to 116 individuals, the effect was the same, says Rudert: “Test persons who have, shortly beforehand, written about their deaths record fewer things that they regret in their lives.” There was, in contrast, no difference between them and the comparison group when test persons were also asked to look back at their lives and to write down positive responses. In other words: Thinking about death reduces the negative memories while the positive memories remain the same. The answers analyzed came from one online survey from the in and one from Germany, and from a survey of psychology students in a laboratory at the University of Basel. The average age of the students was a little over 20, while the average of participants in the other surveys was higher.

But what is it exactly that older and younger people most regret in their lives? Is it, for example, their relationships with other people, their commitment to their careers or how they spent their time? What are the main subjects of regret? These differed widely in the different groups, and ranged from a person’s regret at not having spent more time with their grandmother to another’s regret that they had not concentrated more on school when they were young. It is known from research in social psychology that individuals tend to regret what they did not do more than they regret what they did do. This finding was confirmed by the Basel research.

Theory confirmed

The results, Rudert further explains, confirm and expand a particular theory in her discipline: the terror management theory. According to this, people who are confronted with their death want to protect and increase their own self-esteem – and, at the same time, the culture and society to which they belong and that will survive them. Applied to the Basel study, this would mean: that individuals who reflect on their own mortality do indeed, at first, feel frightened, but they react to the threatening prospect of death by viewing their lives and their surroundings as important – a view that maintains their self-esteem and indeed increases it. “Our assumption is that in these circumstances we relativize the negative things in our lives or, indeed, most likely reinterpret them as positive,” says Rudert. People want to make their own deaths appear in as positive a light as possible and they want to cling to the belief that they have lived a meaningful life.

Regret has a positive effect in that it is possible that previous mistakes are not repeated. The negative side, the damaging and paralyzing side to regret, is, however, equally strong. If pushed to draw a conclusion from the study, the psychologist says, it would be this: “When we contemplate death, the negative aspects of our lives become less important.” Contrary to what is suggested in current book titles, one’s aim in life should not be to avoid reasons for future regret. This is not to say, of course, that all of this can be directly applied to people who are facing imminent death. According to Rudert, the results could, however, be significant for developmental psychology, palliative medicine and geriatric psychiatry, and also, perhaps, for caregivers, doctors and families of patients.

‘Regrets, I’ve had a few/But then again, too few to mention’, are the words of American singer Frank Sinatra’s 1968 song ‘My Way’, in which, shortly before his death, an old man contemplates his life so far. He has come to terms with his mortality and takes responsibility for what he has and has not done in life: “Yes, it was my way,” he sings in the last line of the song. Yet, Frank Sinatra outlived the release of his song by quite some time – by almost 30 years.

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