No one can live life without gathering regrets. An opportunity missed. A situation handled poorly. A conversation you wished you’d had before things got out of control. All of us have done more than enough to cringe in the dark about. But there are ways to have fewer regrets. Here are seven.
1. Be true to who you are
Bronnie Ware, who worked as a carer for individuals in the last stages of life, writes in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, “Of all the regrets and lessons shared with me, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common of all.” And, “It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realisation came too late.”
Who are you? That’s not always an easy question to answer. Yes, it can be about your skill sets, but it’s more about your values and beliefs.
Life coach Michael Feeley suggests that being true to yourself is about “integrity, beliefs, personal values, honesty, sincerity, unwavering principles, being complete, authentic, living by what is and what is not acceptable to you.”
It’s about living to the values you uphold, not what others would have you do. That will, at times, take courage.
2. Live a rich life
This means participating in the full extent of the various stages of life. I deliberately use the word participating, not enjoying, because some things in life are a chore but still add value.
For instance, it can be hard to enjoy the seemingly endless taxi runs parents do with young children, but they can be a part of the richness of life. You have this time with your children, giving you the opportunity to encourage them in what they’re doing. You can rejoice with them in their wins or be a support in losses. Sharing in the richness of their life means you’re enriching your life.
Ask anyone whose children have left home and they will tell you that time passes quickly. Take advantage of it while you can.
Of course, it isn’t only about your children. What are you doing to live a rich life? This is about self-development or doing the things that you are passionate about. Remember, though, most richness comes from people—family and friends.
3. Keep in touch
Social connectedness is “one of the most powerful determinants of our well-being,” says Robert Putman in Bowling Alone. He has discovered strong health benefits because those connected to their community are less likely to experience such things as colds, strokes, heart attacks, cancer, depression and premature deaths from a variety of causes. Close family ties, friendship networks, participation in social events and affiliation with religious or civic associations are beneficial to life.
The Longevity Project, a major study on ageing, has found that it’s more than the “feel-good aspects of having friends that are associated with long life. Rather, it is the more hands-on pieces that matter most—being in contact with family members, doing things with friends and helping others.” It’s the give and takes of relationships, the caring and support, that makes the real difference.
4. Maintain a good work-life balance
“What a stupid fool I was,” John told Ware. He’d worked too long and hard and now had no relationship with any family members. “There’s nothing wrong with loving your work and wanting to apply yourself to it, but there is so much more to life. Balance is what is important, maintaining balance.”
John is right. Balance is important. Unfortunately, it was too late for him. Work is important, but it isn’t the totality of your life. If you’re married you made a commitment to your spouse that your relationship would be central in your life. If you have children, they need both parents in their life.
Then there are the things you need to do for yourself. Things like your interests and your self-improvement.
5. Work on your nest egg early
One of the common pieces of advice retirees give to the generations after them is this: “Start working on your nest egg early.”
It’s true you will need money for retirement, but at each stage of life, you’ll need to be able to finance what you’re doing. Buying a house is a huge financial commitment. Raising children is expensive. There are always lifestyle and living expenses.
One of the best things you can do financially is to work to a plan. That means budgeting, which sounds restrictive unless you see it as having a clear understanding of your financial goals and a plan to reach them. You may need professional help with this. A good financial planner will help you set yourself up to take the most advantage of your finances—including how to gain the best tax results. Getting your money in order early allows more time for your nest egg to grow.
6. Live life to the fullest
None of us knows what life will throw at us. In Randy Pausch’s case, it was pancreatic cancer—a death sentence. He gave his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University (US). More than 18 million have watched it on YouTube.
“I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left,” he wrote in The Last Lecture.
With the worst of news, Pausch decided to keep on living. “Look, I’m not in denial about my situation. I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable. I’m living like I’m dying. But at the same time, I’m living like I’m still living.”
Soon after his diagnosis, his doctors advised him, “It’s important to behave as if you’re going to be around for a while.” He responded, “Doc, I just bought a new convertible and got a vasectomy. What more do you want from me?”
That’s living like he’s still living—despite the fact that he was dying.
7. Give God a chance
There is one very practical reason for giving God a chance—Dan Buettner in his study of longevity in the Blue Zones (areas on our planet where people live longest) observes that “healthy centenarians everywhere have faith. . .. It appears that people who pay attention to their spiritual side have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress and suicide, and their immune system seems to work better.”
The truth is that we can’t know that God exists by mere logic. It is a faith step. Hugh Mackay, in The Good Life, warns that the only way to respond in a “coldly clinical, ruthlessly rational” way to the idea of God—whether an “out-there creative force, an in-here loving spirit or a deity in any other form”—is to remain agnostic and commit to neither theism nor atheism.
The agnostic position says the existence of God is unknowable and cannot be proved.
“That strikes both theists and atheists as faintly pathetic,” because they are certain the evidence leads to their conclusion.
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Of course, there are very few coldly clinical, ruthlessly rational people and Mackay admits that “unprovable” does not make something false or useless. In a society that increasingly rejects God, it’s worth giving Him a chance so you don’t regret it later.
No one lives life without gathering regrets. However, living a satisfying and purposeful life will assist in minimising the number of regrets.
Bruce Manners is a retired Signs of the Times Australia editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.