Don’t Worry, Be Happy

“No, I regret nothing,” Edith Piaf sang in her famous song that struck a chord the world over. But I wonder how many of us will reach the end of our lives with no regrets. Regret is such a wasted emotion, at least in older years when it’s too late to take corrective action over the wrong path, the wrong partner, the wrong career.

So is it possible to die without regrets? Researchers have started to ask the very old, and the dying what it is they regret when they look back over their lives. And the surprising answers might help those of us with time to change course and make adjustments to avoid the pitfalls that lead to regret.

The most comprehensive survey was undertaken by gerontologist Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, New York. He has asked over 1,000 of the oldest Americans – he calls them “the experts” – about their regrets. He expected them to mention major life events such as an affair, a shady business deal or an addiction. But this is what most of them told him: “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.”

From the vantage point of late-life they said if they had their time over they would be more sanguine. They would not fret anxiously about the future. Worry was an enormous waste of precious time, an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And people should train themselves to eliminate worry as the single most important step in achieving greater happiness.

The old people he consulted are part of the Legacy Project, a fascinating enterprise focussed on gathering the wisdom of the elders. Since 2004 researchers have been collecting advice from elderly people on the most important lessons they’ve learnt across their life.

Here’s what James Huang, 87, said about worry: “Why? I ask myself. What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realised it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: ‘Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.’”

A woman said she’d never been a worrier. “I found one really interesting thing about not being a worrier. Other people suspected me of being uncaring. They worried about their teens. I didn’t. I did everything I could to make sure they were safe and following the rules, and then I enjoyed them. There were other moms who questioned if I loved them because, to them, love and worry is inseparable. Not only is that false, not worrying leads to better relationships with your kids, as far as I can tell.”

Looking back, I can see I worried too much about my two children, now wonderful men in their 20s. I don’t think it humanly possible to eliminate worry, especially about children. Indeed I think some worry is essential. I worried if they didn’t study and try hard at school, and I did my nagging best to ensure they didn’t waste their abilities. I think that was a better course than a mother I knew who took a laid-back approach to education. She believed the Year 12 exams – in this case NSW’s Higher School Certificate – were too stressful and put too much pressure on kids and told hers to relax. I never knew a student could get such a low mark as hers eventually did. And I think that unworried mother did her child no favour. But I wasted time worrying about things I couldn’t change: for example, the sibling rivalry I thought would never end but did.

So I read the advice from the elders as worry less, accept more, plan more. And here’s some wisdom from Australians that re-inforces this message. Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware recorded the regrets of the dying people she looked after. The regrets boiled down to five common themes. One in particular echoes the “worry less” message: “I wish I’d let myself be happier.”  Bronnie writes:  “Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.”

The other regrets of dying people were

. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends

Regret is not always bad. In a younger person it’s a spur to learn from one’s mistakes. But at some point on life’s journey, wallowing in remorse is a recipe for depression. Another study has indicated elderly people who suffer depression blame themselves for missed opportunities and feel more remorse compared to healthy older people who are more able to let go of regrets. The researcher, neuro-scientist Stefanie Brassen, said “….it seems to be essential for our emotional well-being….when we are older…to not look back in anger and to focus on the positive.”

What do you think? Any regrets? Please click on Comments.

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Adele Horin

Adele Horin

Adele Marilyn Horin was an Australian journalist. She retired in 2012 as a columnist and journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald. A prolific and polarising writer on social issues, she was described as "the paper's resident feminist.