Living A Life Without (Major) Regrets

Autumn seems like an appropriate time to share some expert advice about regrets. Poets associate the coming of fall with lost chances, missed opportunities, and the passing of precious time. Tennyson looked at an autumn landscape and evocatively wrote the following.
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Autumn seems like an appropriate time to share some expert advice about regrets. Poets associate the coming of fall with lost chances, missed opportunities, and the passing of precious time. Tennyson looked at an autumn landscape and evocatively wrote:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

It's true that people can be haunted for a lifetime by decisions taken decades before. Some of the most poignant movies feature characters who are magically allowed a second chance to right a wrong or to say what was left unsaid -- as evidenced by the countless tears shed over films like Ghost. Even with the passage of many years it can be difficult to come to terms with remorse for opportunities missed, harmful actions, or crucial words left unsaid.

Over the past 10 years, I've surveyed around 2,000 older people about their lessons for living. I came away firmly believing that there is no better source for guidance on "regret avoidance." In our studies of elders' general advice for younger people, and on their specific advice on love and marriage, we asked directly: "What can younger people do now to avoid having regrets at your age?" The results are surprising -- and may shed light on how you make life decisions small and large..

The view from the "finish line" of life is uniquely valuable when it comes to understanding and preventing regrets. Here are five key strategies from the oldest Americans.

1. Choose a Mate with Extreme Care

The elders agree on one thing: this is probably the most important decision a human being makes. And yet, looking back over their own experience and their observation of others, their view is that we are not careful enough. When it comes to marriage, they say, some people rely on an impulsive move, a perceived last-chance leap, or a slide into the inevitable. Their advice is to stop, look, and listen. Question the decision, then question it again. Or you may be in for deep and serious regrets.

Some very strong testimony for the need to wait and choose carefully comes, as you might predict, from elders who experienced failed marriages. Henry, 82, told me that taking a lot of time before committing is something of an insurance policy against later regret:

I think the injunction that I'd like to offer to young people is look very carefully for a life partner and select very wisely. Don't grab the first person that comes along that shows interest in you. Be very, very careful about the selection of a life partner and try to look well beyond the near horizon and look as far into the future as you can. Realize that there are going to be challenges through your life and this person you're considering at this time is the one you'd like to have with you as you face future problems. I didn't do very well and I'd like to pass that advice along to young folks. Look for a life partner very carefully, even rejecting some that you think might be very good. Let the partner know you're taking your time. Invite the partner also to take his or her time. Don't be hasty, try to avoid pitfalls down the road.

According to the elders, taking the time to know someone before marriage can prevent years, or even decades, of difficulty as life goes on. So whether you are a young person embarking on a first marriage or someone in middle age thinking of the "second time around," you have a golden opportunity for regret prevention.

2. Always be Honest

I apologize in advance for sounding like I'm preaching here. But I hope that you will give me special permission to do so, because I'm not preaching from my own viewpoint. The 2,000 older Americans who contributed to our studies offered this prescription for regret-free living so unanimously (and so vehemently) that I'm going to preach to you on their behalf. To avoid later-life remorse, one word was repeated again and again: Honesty.

For people age 70 and beyond, honesty is an indisputable core value, one that was bred in the bone as children. When asked how to avoid regrets, most replied something along the lines of: "Always be honest." "Honesty." "Tell the truth and don't cheat anybody." But it's also a practical lesson for avoiding regret that many of them have learned the hard way.

A typical response came from Arnie Hoffman, 83, who gave the following as his guiding principle for life and the key to avoiding regret in any domain:

Honesty is the one value that will guide you through the rest of your life. I think honesty controls everything. If you're honest with yourself, you'll be honest with your wife and family. If you're honest with all the people around you, no matter what happens, you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and say, I haven't done anything wrong. In other words, you've made the right decision if you're honest. If there's one thing that I could pass on to anybody it would be to be honest -- with yourself and with everybody.

There were myriad examples of regrets about dishonesty, including betrayal of a friend or marital infidelity. However, perhaps the most frequent issue the elders raised was failure to be honest at work. Many said that they paid a heavy psychological price for unethical behavior. Jordan, 77, had a brush with the "shady side" of business that cured him forever and made honesty his most important life lesson.

I had a few experiences along those lines when I might have questioned my honesty, whether I was doing the right thing and making certain judgments. If I do this I'll make a lot of money, if I don't do that I don't make as much money but I can sleep at night. I absolutely don't want to be getting up in the middle of the night saying, "What happens if this happens, if that happens?" Believe me, it's not worth it for money to do questionable stuff. It will destroy you. If you have some kind of good quality about you, you're going to question it, you're not going to be able to sleep at night with it.

From the enormous list of possible virtues to recommend, dishonesty was mentioned over and over as a source of profound regret. Indeed, nearly all of the respondents offered the same, specific life lesson for avoiding regrets throughout the life course: Always be honest. It's up to you, but if you choose to ignore it - don't say they didn't warn you!

3. Travel More

Based on my studies, I can almost guarantee you one thing: If you don't do it now, you will wish you had traveled more.To sum up what I learned in a sentence: When your traveling days are over, you will wish you had taken one more trip.

The elders' message for younger people regarding travel is to do it now. Among the most regretful are those who put off travel until it was too late. Thomas, 81, lost his wife, Lynne, to cancer when he was 68. He did some traveling on his own in his retirement, but he realized what he had missed:

We always thought we'd do a lot of lot of traveling when we retired, you know? But then Lynne passed away, and it was too late. I took some trips, but that's less fun going alone. I took a bus through the Canadian Rockies. I even turned once to her. I was sitting in a seat by myself and it was beautiful, and I wanted to tell Lynne, "Look at that light, the color, that light." But of course she wasn't there. And I just want to share things with her when I travel, but we waited too long.

I can hear some of you saying: That's all well and good, but how can we afford it? The elders counter by saying that travel is so rewarding, it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on. According to Mary, 78:

I think traveling is so important, that If you have to make a decision, whether you want to remodel your kitchen or take a trip -- well, I say, choose the trip. And travel when you're young. Material things, you can wait on those. But I think that travel, seeing things, you have to do now.

4. Worry Less

I've discussed this top regret-avoidance strategy elsewhere, so I will be very brief here. I admit that I'm a world-class worrier. So for me a particularly striking lesson from the elders for avoiding regret -- and a nearly unanimous one -- was this: Stop worrying. The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: "Worry wastes your life." Many people have found this advice to be the most liberating news from our studies.

5. Say It Now

The view from later life is this: If you have something to say to someone, do it before it's too late. The elders emphasize this lesson either because they grateful that they spoke up while there was still time, or because they profoundly regret not having done so.

David, 72, reinforced this point by offering a very clear aphorism: "Send flowers to the living. The dead never see them." He emphasized one particular point for regret-free living: Do it now:

I do believe that. Tell people to send flowers to the living. Because by the time they're gone, what's the point in sending them? If you're going to do it, do it now. Don't wait until next week to send those flowers to the living because they might not be living then. If you want to do something that will make a difference, do it now. If you have a grudge against someone, something like that, why not make it right, now? Make it right because there may not be another opportunity, who knows, so do what you can do now.

It was in marriage that I saw the most devastating impact of things left unsaid. Often (but by no means always) it was men who wish they'd spoken up. Ray, 81, loved his wife dearly and was still grieving her death three years earlier after 55 years of marriage. He was asked: What mistakes should young people avoid regarding getting and staying married? He began to cry quietly, and answered:

The one thing I regret is that I didn't tell her how much I loved her as much as I should have. And I didn't really realize that until I lost her. So I want to tell people to express yourself. She and I both were the kind of people to hold back those kinds of feelings. I don't want to say, "I took her for granted," but I took those kinds of feelings for granted, and I can see in retrospect it would have been much more fulfilling for both of us if I hadn't. And I think she probably would feel the same way.

In contrast to the regretful respondents, few elders were more grateful than those who had managed to say what needed to be said while there was still time. Ruth, 88, tragically lost her college-age daughter, Julia, in a plane crash. She told me:

And one thing we always did, when whenever we would get off the phone we always said, 'I love you.' And I was so happy that we did that because that's what I said when I said goodbye to Julia. The last words that I said to her were 'I love you.

For some regrets, there are possibilities of do-overs and second chances. Unfulfilled goals like not getting more education or not traveling enough, for example, can be remedied until fairly late in life. Leaving critical things unsaid, however, from asking forgiveness to saying "I love you," can't be changed after the person is gone. Here's where the simplest of actions - a conversation -- is a great regret-prevention strategy.

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