By: Karl Pillemer
People can be haunted for a lifetime by the decisions that they have made decades earlier. Sometimes, those regrets just don’t go away. 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. The view from the “finish line” of life is uniquely valuable when it comes to understanding and preventing regrets
Over the past 10 years, I surveyed around 2,000 older people about their Lessons for Living — I came away a firm believer that there is no better source for guidance on “regret avoidance.” In our studies, we asked elders’, “What can younger people do now to avoid having regrets at your age?” You may find the results surprising!
Choose a Mate with Extreme Care
Elders agree that this is probably the most important decision a person makes. Realize that there are going to be challenges in life and ask yourself if this is the person that you want to face issues with you. When it comes to marriage, they say, some people can be impulsive. Their advice is to stop, look, and listen. According to elders, taking the time to know someone before marriage can prevent decades of difficulty as life goes on.
Always be Honest
From a long list of possible virtues to recommend, dishonesty was mentioned over and over as a source of profound regret. Nearly all the respondents offered the life lesson to always be honest. A few examples are a betrayal of a friend and marital infidelity, but the most frequent issue among seniors was being honest at work. They agree that if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror every morning, there’s a good chance you will have regrets.
The elders’ message for younger people is to travel when you can. Amongst the most regretful are those who put off travel until it was too late. Elders found travel so rewarding, they recommend that it should take precedence over other things that younger people spend money on. When the traveling days are over, you may wish you had taken just one more trip.
The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. Looking back on their lives, most people agree that to avoid regret, stop worrying. Many people have found this advice to be the most liberating news from all our studies.
Say it Now
This advice probably won’t surprise you…if you have something to say to someone, do it before it’s too late. Elders emphasize this because they are grateful that they spoke up when there was still time, or they experienced profound regret at not having done so when they had the chance. Says Ray, 81, after his wife of 55 years passed away, “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….”
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.
Karl is the Director of the CompassCare Institute. He is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and internationally renowned gerontologist and published author.