Life Is a Game, Play Without Regret

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

1. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

3. I wish I had let myself be happier.

4. I wish I'd had the courage to express my true self.

5. I wish I'd lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

That's it. The most frequently expressed regrets by those on their deathbed. It looks stark and serious laid out like that, doesn't it?

Jane McGonigal, an alternate reality game designer, gives us insight into these regrets in her TEDTalk. She offers a unique perspective on how to avoid them -- how to live your life in a way that is the opposite of regret. And she doesn't mince words. Life, despite the wonderful and amazing, can also really suck. It can be drudgery. Life can hand you a shit sandwich and then sit you down and force you to eat it. Yeah, life can be like that. Really, really bad.

McGonigal found herself there. A concussion that didn't heal properly left her with a slew of serious symptoms, the worst being suicidal ideation. Her brain was telling her, "You're never going to get better. Your pain will never end." And for a while, she believed it.

I had been there. I endured years in a marriage where I felt overworked and underappreciated. Resentment built. Things got worse. We went to counseling. Things got worse. And I was tortured by ambiguity. Should I stay or should I go? One question plagued me: How do you know when it's just a rough spot in the road and when it's the end of the road? I didn't know the answer, but I eventually picked one. It's the end of the road, I decided. This has gone on for too long. We've tried too many times. I deserve better. This is no way to live.

We separated, then divorced. It was hell. Things were not better. Things were broken. Here I thought I'd done this brave thing -- I had said "Enough!" and claimed my right to live a happier life. Only no one was happier. I was sad, my ex-husband was sad, our three children were sad. Divorce is the very definition of trauma. A bomb explodes in the middle of your life and you're left, shell-shocked, wondering what in the hell happened. How did we get here?

That's when I did the opposite of what everyone expected of me. I looked back. With regret. -- Kate Ryan Williams

McGonigal tells us about research into post-traumatic growth. Did you know there was such a thing? I mean, we've all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but did you know there was the opposite? There are those who suffer after a trauma -- and rightly so. They are haunted, plagued, incapacitated. They have good reason to be. But there are also those (and they may be the same people, just at different points in their lives) that, instead of being stressed after trauma, experience a period of intense personal growth.

That's when I did the opposite of what everyone expected of me. I looked back. With regret.

What had we done? Our time together -- this marriage -- left a history. It couldn't be erased. Over 20 years of knowing one another and experiencing all the firsts: college degrees, a job, a house, Baby 1, Baby 2, Baby 3. I could never experience those things again with anyone else. We had hurt one another, that was certain. But we had also loved one another and become a family. And I decided that I didn't want to be there, meeting my children's father in a Barnes & Noble, exchanging prescription receipts and school pictures, shuttling children back and forth between two homes -- a business arrangement. I had the courage to express myself to this person that had hurt me - that I had wanted so badly to be done with -- but had also once been the person I trusted most. It was a gamble, but it paid off.

We reconciled. We put the lives we'd separated back together. And it was like we had come back from the dead.

I trusted myself. The same person I'd trusted that had gotten me into this mess. I trusted her to help me dig out of it. And she did. She helps me today to live a life without regret. One where I don't work so hard - -and neither does my husband. One where we show up for friends. A life where we let ourselves be happier and express our true selves. We don't let the little things -- the petty annoyances, the perceived slights -- become the big things that can cause a life to come undone. We are true to ourselves, those two young people who dreamed they'd be married to each other forever, instead of what others expected: yet another divorce. We feel lucky because of it. We have seen the other side, and we don't want to go there. Ever again.

McGonigal did the same, recovering from a traumatic brain injury that caused debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts. She wanted to end it all. Until she didn't. She figured out how to live by learning to play the game. She actually developed a game, SuperBetter, that helped her get -- you guessed it -- better. She trusted herself. She saved herself. And by sharing what she created, she helped others get better, too.

We can lose everything. But we can turn it around.

1. My priorities have changed - I'm not afraid to do what makes me happy.

2. I feel closer to my friends and family.

3. I understand myself better; I know who I really am now.

4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose.

5. I'm better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

Those are the top five things that people with post-traumatic growth say. And I'm happy to be one of them.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.