“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” - Arthur Miller
We’re all getting older, but if you think aging will be a blow to your esteem, take heart. Most older people are happier. At least those that have let the bullshit go, become more optimistic, learned to trust people and discovered their real priorities in life. Of course, it’s not all retirement and roses. Not being healthy can zap that contented spirit as studies show “the relation between physical health and subjective well being is bidirectional.”
But the fact is, here in the United States, people have the lowest sense of well being in their 40s and 50s. One could argue that it is likely because they’re prioritizing all the wrong things. In fact, seniors look back at this time in their lives and have some poignant and proactive advice to offer.
The founder and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, Karl Pillemer, found that Americans over 65 almost all shared one regret that they turned into advice. They said, “I would have spent less time worrying" and "I regret that I worried so much about everything."
Older people surveyed in the UK had three pieces of regret laden advice that different slightly from their state cohorts. They wished they’d traveled more, had not lost touch with friends, and had not wasted time interacting and caring about the wrong people and what they thought.
There is one trend, however, that pervades all the studies of older people, and even dying people’s, regrets. The trend, isolated and explained here, is that “inaction regrets lasted longer than action regrets, and that greater loss severity corresponded to more inaction regrets. Regrets more often focused on non-fixable than fixable situations.”
Meaning, people most regret the things they DO NOT do; the risks not taken. Failures in action are rarely regrettable. Failures TO act are highly so.
So, what are the takeaways? If you look at all the surveys and compile all the results, here are the top 5 pieces of advice to glean from your elders:
Stop Worrying - Especially about failing at those things you really want to do. Because inaction regrets are on the horizon. Stop caring about what others think. Stop fretting over small things that won’t matter next year. Stop spinning your wheels and sweating the small stuff.
Maintain Friendships - You’re so busy right now and you’re not sure it’s worth it to make time for those friends who sometimes drive you crazy. Let the petty stuff go. Your future self misses those people. Make time now and keep them around. You’ll be glad you did.
Be Authentic - This one goes hand in hand with worrying less. Just be yourself and don’t worry about the haters, naysayers and reality instructors. You do you. As Sarah Bareilles tells us, “Say what you want to say and let the words come out. Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”
Work Less - Work is consuming in the 40s and 50s. Your career and money-making potential has peaked and with that comes the responsibility to cash in, climb up and achieve great heights. Could this be why Americans are less happy in these years? Seniors look back and wonder what the rush was all about. They got to the end of the rat race and were unimpressed by the cheese. Keep that in mind the next time you lose sleep about a work project.
Travel More - It’s a big beautiful world out there. Make time to go see it while you still have the physical endurance, money and time to do so. Don’t make the bucket list when you’re 75. Make it now.