DISCIPLINE STRATEGY® Blog by Timothy L. Coomer, PhD
Lessons on applying scientific research to solve real life challenges within a framework called DISCIPLINE: [Decide] [Investigate] [Sort] [Conceive] [Implement] [Loop] [Intensify] [Notice] [Enjoy]
Have you heard of “The Rocking Chair Test?” Here is how it works: imagine yourself years in the future, sitting in a rocking chair, and consider how you would feel about the consequences of a major life decision you are facing today. The premise of the test is that viewing your decision from a future, wiser perspective, you make a better choice. In theory, this sounds like a great method for making an important decision.
Unfortunately, research shows that our ability to project ourselves into future scenarios is poor. This led me to ask a different question: when confronted with a major decision that requires either a leap of faith or staying with the status quo, what guidance can we get from various research studies? Here is what I found.
Research: Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness
This recent working paper by Steven D. Levitt of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and co-author of the bestselling book Freakonomics, finds:
“For important decisions, those who make a change report being substantially happier two months and six months later.” And, the final sentence of the abstract states, “The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.”
I believe the problem with the Rocking Chair Test is that we tend to project our fear and status-quo biases into our future rocking chair personas. It often doesn’t work because it tends to promote cautious thinking. Perhaps some of us can project a bolder future self that supports a decision for change – but, I think this is uncommon.
If everyone was utilizing the Rocking Chair Test, and it worked, then we wouldn’t see research like the recent survey from Remember a Charity, a UK based organization. In their study, they found that 40% of adults regret their life choices. The National Institutes of Health, in the US, dug deeper to see what the top regrets were.
Research: What We Regret Most… and Why
The study is a meta-analysis of previous studies combined with new research conducted by the authors. The six major areas of regret were:
5) The self
My interpretation of this study is: regret manifests when you believe you had free choice but you decided to maintain the status quo. Certainly, there is regret when you choose action and fail. But the regret of not acting on a perceived opportunity is where the greatest regret lies. The authors close with this statement:
“Opportunity breeds regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed.”
I have a friend who often poses questions to me like this, “Tim, you’re a research guy… what do you think about…” For nearly forty years, I have read books and research studies in order to form a framework for how to live an optimal life. The result of that work is a set of “rules” I have developed for myself. These are private and they are not something I typically share. But, there is one rule I live by that I want to share. It is designed to help me avoid regret and it may be helpful to you. The rule simply states: “Err on the side of going and doing.”
All of us face big decisions in life and it is easy to get stuck in the tug-of-war between the safety of the status-quo (called the status quo bias) and the perceived benefit that will result from a decision for change. When I find myself “stuck” in that tug-of-war, I refer to my personal rule book and remind my self to “err on the side of going and doing.”
If you are faced with a major life decision – take the leap of faith. Believe in your ability to deal with the unknown parameters that will result from a decision for change. The research is clear. People are happier when they choose change and people regret most the opportunities missed.
I’ll leave you with a historical reference to a speech by Theodore Roosevelt. On Saturday, April 23rd, 1910, then ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, spoke at The Sorbonne in the Grand Amphitheater at the University of Paris. The speech was titled, “Citizenship in a Republic.” Few people could recall the content of the full speech, but one portion of the speech has remained as Roosevelt’s most inspiring and popular quotes. This subset of the speech is referred to as “The Man in the Arena.” It is shown below with my emphasis on the part most relevant to this article:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Of course, this was written in the vernacular of the day. The message applies to everyone today – all people – everywhere in the world.
I encourage you to take the leap of faith. Make the decision for positive life change. The research shows you will be happier, more satisfied, and have much less regret.
Want to take it further? Resources to consider:
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