If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Regret illustrationHow many times have you wished you could give your younger self a piece of advice? Clemson psychology professor Robin Kowalski is willing to bet there’s not a single person who hasn’t thought about this at least once in the last year. According to her research, the odds are pretty good that she’s right.

Her latest article in the Journal of Social Psychology, “If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self,” analyzes the results of two studies of more than 400 individuals 30 years of age or older. Kowalski said the results have been truly revealing about the nature of regret, how people can use it to self-actualize and what areas people tend to fixate on in their later years.

Q | You shouldn’t dwell on the past, right?

A | “My findings would suggest otherwise as long as you’re not obsessing about it,” Kowalski said. One-third of the participants in the study spontaneously thought about advice they would offer their younger selves at least once a week.

Thinking about the past can help people conceptualize and even realize their “ideal self,” which reflects who the person thinks they would like to be. “Following the advice helped participants overcome regret,” Kowalski said. “When participants followed their advice in the present, they were much more likely to say that their younger selves would be proud of the person they are now.”

Q | What areas do people tend to focus on when it comes to advice to the younger self?

A | Kowalski said the top three areas are education, self-worth and relationships.

Advice tied to education often involved individuals urging themselves to return to or finish school, and many participants offered a timeline, such as “get master’s while in your 20s” or “finish college in four years.”

Advice related to self-worth, such as “be yourself” or “think through all options before making a decision,” tended to be more inspirational and corrective than the more temporal advice about education.

“My favorite piece of advice in the whole paper,” Kowalski said, “came from a guy who said ‘Do. Not. Marry. Her.’ That’s valuable for the person that he is now because he can reflect and have a better idea of what he’s looking for in an ideal mate, plus he can offer advice to others.”

Q | Will this research make it more likely that children will follow their parents’ advice?

A | “No,” Kowalski laughed, “but that’s an interesting way of looking at things because I think children between 10 and 30 tend to deny how similar they are to their parents. If they embraced it, they might be more likely to listen to the advice their parents would have given to their younger selves, and the closest thing to that younger self is their children.”

Q | What could a young Robin Kowalski learn from today’s Robin Kowalski?

A | “I would do high school totally differently. I was so academically focused, so I think I would tell myself to have a little bit more fun and enjoy high school a little more.”

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