How to Avoid Regret!What we can learn from people who have faced death
In 2003 the New Yorker magazine published an article entitled “A Letter from California” about the suicide capital of the world, the Golden Gate Bridge, in San francisco. At that time the reported statistic was that someone leapt to their death from the bridge every two weeks. Among the most most memorable features of the piece– indeed, it is easy for me to recall a decade later– is a passage about the small percentage of people who survive the jump from the bridge. The author of the article asserts that instant regret is a common experience among those who jump to their deaths only to later survive. One young man, for example, was quoted as saying ” I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable– except for having just jumped.” This is a powerful testament to the idea that life is largely what we make of it and that our moment to moment perceptions can have a strong impact on our decisions, behavior and relationships.
Never is this more true than in the case of regret. Regret happens when we feel we have “mis-lived.” That is, when we feel that we have made mistakes from which we cannot recover or which we cannot undo. All of us harbor some form of regret. Sometimes they are small, such as wishing you would have attended a dinner party. Other times they are large, such as wishing you had never invested in a certain company or gotten married.
Recently, a hospice nurse in Australia cataloged the common regrets of the dying patients with whom she worked. The two top regrets are interesting and fundamentally relatable. First, people generally wished they had had the courage to live a more authentic life. They looked back on life and realized the many occasions in which they had capitulated to external pressure. They wished they would have taken a few more opportunities to follow their own hearts. The second regret on the list was “I wish I wouldn’t have worked so hard.” In a world where success is often measured by what we do and how well we do it the blur between job and identity appears not to be fulfilling in the long-run. If deathbed wisdom is any guide than people would prefer, at least in retrospect, to have taken off a few more Fridays and spent a bit more time with friends and family.
When you think about your life you likely have regrets large and small. Instead of dwelling on them here consider what you might do to avoid them in the first place. Are you willing to take a sick or vacation day to spend time with those you care about? Are you willing to take it a little easier at work this week? Are you willing to say no to someone else or take the risk to pursue a private passion? Take bold action now to avoid regret later.
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is fascinated by the way people avoid the difficult aspects of human psychology despite their benefits. He has written about these topics in his new book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. It is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell’s or Indie Bound.
My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:
In the post-Jaialai birthday moment, I am filled with regrets. Would our circumstances have been different had I not followed your mother and returned to racist Oregon and the suburb of the place known as one of the most racist cities in the U.S.? See, e.g., https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/racist-history-portland/492035/; https://gizmodo.com/oregon-was-founded-as-a-racist-utopia-1539567040; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/31/portland-white-supremacy-racism-train-stabbing-murder; http://www.oregonmag.net/OregonRacismTrib.html; https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/07/northwest-front-americas-worst-racists-119803; http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2015/07/oregon_history_of_racism.html; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/portland-race-against-the-past-white-supremacy/; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/06/07/when-portland-banned-blacks-oregons-shameful-history-as-an-all-white-state/?utm_term=.25ae7756d407; etc.
We all have regrets. (Only liars and those who fail to live an examined life would deny them.) As stated above, regrets are moments of life mis-lived — moments you wish you would had experienced differently based on YOUR choice of action at the time.
Some regrets are unavoidable, to some extent. For example, as played out in the news recently, the Bachelor experienced regrets about who he chose and took bold actions to rectify the situation before it was too late. https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/03/06/the-bachelor-after-the-final-rose-what-went-down-after-mondays-debacle/. (We fault the man not for his bold action but for his lack humanity in handling the break up with the woman he regretted proposing to.) The heart does as it wishes. We love who we love without rhyme or reason. But, the head and the body need not (and should not) heedlessly follow the romantic and mercurial heart on its misadventures. Humanity, morality, responsibility, etc., often serve to restrain the desires of the heart. This dynamics often sets up the inevitable conflict and results in regret.
Aside from matters of the heart, other regrets are often avoidable IF, at that moment in time, we think critically, broadly, and clearly through the issues and choose bold actions, if appropriate, instead of giving into fear and timidity. Let’s look at each component of my assertion.
First, critical, broad, and clear thinking is necessary to avoid most regrets. Why? Too often, regret results from rushed decisions (fools rush in, remember?) or poor decisions based on imperfect analysis or data. A common error, especially for decisions made during the heat of the moment, is that we analyze things too narrowly in terms of time as a dimension or in terms of other relevant factors. For example, during the heat of the moment, we often erroneously think the issue confronting us will last forever or for a long time. Then, too often, we further exacerbate poor analysis with poor data: we fail think through the matters sufficiently to understand fully what data is necessary and, as a result, we fail to gather all the necessary and relevant data from relevant stakeholders before making our decision. In hindsight, we often regret these decisions for having failed to think through the problem more clearly and broadly.
Second, containing our emotions is also necessary to avoid most regrets. Beware, emotions — both positive and negative — can overwhelm and blind us to reality. Thus, it’s best to give time for emotions to subside to avoid making rash decisions.
Let me give you an example of how joyful emotions could lead us to make foolish decisions that could haunt us for life.
IN 2010 at a mate’s party, strapping 19-year-old rugby player Sam Ballard swallowed a garden slug as a dare.
A group of young friends was sitting around at a table drinking red wine when a slug was produced and one of them said: “Eat it, I dare you”.
Sam swallowed the slug.
Prior to this, Ballard’s mother Katie had thought her son as a “larrikin” but “invincible”, that nothing could ever happen to him.
She described him as “my rough-and-tumble Sam”.
But the teenager’s life was to take a devastating turn.
Sam, from Sydney’s north shore, fell ill and was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital where he was diagnosed as having been infected with rat lungworm.
The worm is found in rodents, but snails or slugs can become infected when they eat the faeces of rats with the parasite, known as Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
While most people develop no symptoms, very rarely it causes an infection of the brain.
Sam contracted eosinophilic meningo-encephalitis, which many people recover from and which Sam initially seemed to be rallying.
But he then lapsed into a coma for 420 days and became a quadriplegic.
We’ve all been there. We’re having fun with friends, and in the heat of the moment, someone suggests a stupid idea. Unfortunately, often, in the heady moment of euphoria the idea doesn’t sound so stupid, and someone ends up getting hurt by it.
Stop. Think. Don’t allow emotions to cloud your judgement.
If fear of failure, of looking stupid, etc., or another negative emotion holds you back from doing what your head tells you is the best decision, be bold. The moment of absolute certainty never arrives. If you’ve engaged in the appropriate analysis and have made the best decision possible under the circumstances, believe in yourself and boldly embrace your decision. If you fail, so what? Learn and do better next time.
Now let me give you the clearest example of how fear and short-sighted thinking beget regrets: suicides.
[O]ne of the saddest realities about suicide is that it often results from impulsive decisions that might have never occurred again if the person had survived or backed out.
Anywhere from one-third to 80% of all suicide attempts are impulsive acts, according to The New England Journal of Medicine. 24% of those who made near-lethal suicide attempts decided to kill themselves less than five minutes before the attempt, and 70% made the decision within an hour of the attempt.
Suicidal urges are sometimes caused by immediate stressors, such as a break-up or job loss, that go away with the passage of time. 90% of people who survive suicide attempts, including the most lethal types like shooting one’s self in the head, don’t end up killing themselves later. That statistic reflects the “temporary nature and fleeting sway of many suicidal crises,” reports The New England Journal of Medicine.
Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late…. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.” ….
When Paul Alarab was pulled from the Bay at 11:34 a.m., he was unconscious and badly bruised. The impact had ripped off his left glove and his right shoe. The Coast Guard crew, wearing their standard jumper-retrieval garb to protect against leaking body fluids—Tyvex biohazard suits, masks, gloves, and safety goggles—began C.P.R. Half an hour later, Alarab was pronounced dead. Gary Tindel, the assistant coroner of Marin County, who examined the body on the dock at Fort Baker, at the north end of the bridge, observed that “massive bleeding had occurred in both ears, along with apparent grayish brain matter in and around the right ear.” Tindel brought Alarab’s … cell phone back to the coroner’s office in San Rafael. Soon afterward, the cell phone rang. It was Alarab’s ex-wife, Rubina Coton: their nine-year-old son had been waiting more than two hours at school for his father to pick him up.
“May I speak with Paul?” Coton asked.
“I’m sorry,” Tindel said. “You can’t.”
In other words, a break up, a job loss, or crisis point often triggered fears about the overwhelming nature of life AT THAT MOMENT and caused people to make rash decisions without thinking broadly about how that moment will pass, how other people would be adversely affected by the person’s bad decision, etc. If they had taken time to let their emotions and fears subside so that they could think more clearly and broadly about the problems confronting them, they would realize that the problems are often solvable and that the crisis will pass. As with Ken Baldwin, the one regret that most of those who survived suicide attempts has is the suicide itself: they realized the only problem they could not fix was their death — all their other problems were fixable or tolerable.
No one promised you that life would be easy. If they did, they lied. Life isn’t easy. It has its beautiful moments that could bring boundless joy. But, it also has dark moments that could bring deep despair. Both are part of life. What you do during those moments matter. Enjoy the beauty and wait out the despair for both will pass. Cling to neither. https://www.thoughtco.com/life-is-suffering-what-does-that-mean-450094.
When faced with challenges, I am often reminded of the Serenity Prayer.
For a discussion about the teachings of the Serenity Prayer, see https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/18/serenity-prayer-wisdom_n_4965139.html.
I grew up Catholic, and you boys were baptized as Catholic. Regardless of whether your mom brings you to church service regularly, let the teachings of the Catholic traditions help guide you. There is wisdom there. The Church is animated by men, and men are not infallible. For example, vanity once ruled the Roman Catholic Church and three separate popes vied for power at the same time. See, e.g., https://www.britannica.com/event/Western-Schism. You may not agree 100% with all of the Church’s teachings, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Accept the good.
After you boys were wrongly taken from me, I struggled to find meaning for life. After having spent years of my life helping the homeless, the poor, the elderly, the infirm, the refugees, the victims of domestic violence, etc., I couldn’t understand how racist thugs could collaborate with a known pedophile to frame Ms. L and me to place her son with the pedophile. Racist thugs physically assaulted Ms. L, a slight woman of 100 lbs., and sent her to the emergency room. They illegally seized confidential documents that were clearly marked “Confidential and Subject to Attorney-Client Privilege” that any court would forbid. How could these systems I’ve spent years supporting failed us so drastically?
The first place where Ms. L and I found refuge sat next to a huge and open construction site. Metal bars grew out of those massive pits. Not a day passed where one or both of us didn’t think about jumping from the highest point we could find and impaling ourselves onto those metal stakes.
Three things stopped us. The first was our children. Kids who lose a parent to suicide are more likely to commit suicide. Thus, suicide couldn’t be the legacy we leave for you kids. The second was each other. You boys have your mother, but we had no one but each other. The thugs threatened and harassed everyone dear to us. The third was hope: we would fight, clear our names, and get you back. Thus, we live to fight another day, and we do not regret that decision.
Be strong, my sons. We fight for you, and will continue to do so. It took me more than five years to expose the Enron of Healthcare, who defrauded the sick and dying out of the health care for which the latter have paid. Five years where we struggled because I lost my job when I blew the whistle against the corrupt. This struggle is greater.
All my love, always
P.S., I leave you with another article that you may find informative.
The 25 Biggest Regrets In Life. What Are Yours?
We are all busy. Life happens. There’s always something to distract us from getting around to certain things we know we should do.
Soccer practice. Work. Home renovations. Getting that next big promotion.
And with the explosion of always-on smartphones and tablets delivering a fire hose of urgent emails, not to mention Twitter and Facebook (FB), in recent years, things have only gotten busier.
In the backs of our minds, we know we’re neglecting some stuff we should do. But we never get around to it.
Then, something happens. A good friend or loved one – maybe close to us in age – drops dead unexpectedly. We begin to think about what our biggest regrets would be if we were suddenly sitting on our death bed.Here is a list of the 25 biggest ones we’ll probably have.
The question is, are you going to change anything this afternoon or tomorrow in light of this list? Or are you going to go back to your busy life?1. Working so much at the expense of family and friendships. How do you balance meeting that short-term deadline at work and sitting down for dinner with your family? It’s tough. There are always worries. “What will my boss and co-workers think? It’s not a big deal if I stay late this one time. I’ll make it up with the family this weekend.” But the “making up” never seems to happen. Days turn to months and then years and then decades.
2. Standing up to bullies in school and in life. Believe it or not, a lot of our biggest regrets in life have to do with things that happened to us in grade 4 or some other early age. We never seem to forget – or forgive ourselves – for not speaking up against the bullies. We were too scared. We wish we had been more confident. And by the way most of us have also met up with a bully in our work life. Maybe he was our boss. We remember that one time we wish we’d told him off – even if it cost us our job. We usually take some small solace in hearing that that bully later on made some unfortunate career stumble.
3. Stayed in touch with some good friends from my childhood and youth. There’s usually one childhood or high school friend who we were best buddies with. Then, one of us moved away. We might have stayed in touch at first but then got busy. Sometimes, we thought to pick up the phone, but maybe we don’t have their number or email any more. We always wonder what it would be like to sit down with them again for a coffee.
4. Turned off my phone more/Left my phone at home. Many of us can’t get off our phone/email addiction. We sleep with it next to us. We carry it with us constantly. It’s right next to us in the shower, just in case we see a new email icon light up through the steamed up shower glass. We know constantly checking email and Twitter in the evenings and on weekends takes us away from quality time with family and friends. Yet, we don’t stop.
5. Breaking up with my true love/Getting dumped by them. Romance is a big area of regret for most of us. Maybe we dumped someone that we wish we hadn’t. Maybe they dumped us. Most play a never-ending game of “what might have been” for the rest of their lives. It is tough to simply be happy with the love that you’ve found and takes away from the special moments you have today, if you’re constantly thinking back to what you once had — which actually might not have been half as good as we think it was.
6. Worrying about what others thought about me so much. Most of us place way too much importance on what other people around us think about us. How will they judge us? In the moment, we think their opinions are crucial to our future success and happiness. On our death beds, none of that matters.
7. Not having enough confidence in myself. Related to the previous point, a big regret for most of us is questioning why we had such little confidence in ourselves. Why did we allow the concerns of others to weigh so heavy on us instead of trusting our own beliefs? Maybe we didn’t think we were worth having what we wanted. Maybe we just thought poorly of ourselves. Later on, we wish we could have been more self-confident.
8. Living the life that my parents wanted me to live instead of the one I wanted to. Related to that lack of confidence, a lot of us get sucked into living the life that we think a good son or daughter should live. Whether because we’re explicitly told or just because we unconsciously adopt it, we make key life choices – about where to go to school, what to study, and where to work — because we think it’s what will make our parents happy. Our happiness is derived through their happiness – or so we think. It’s only later – 1o or 20 years on – where we discover that friends around us are dying and we’re not really doing what we want to do. A panic can start to set in. Whose life am I living any way?
9. Applying for that “dream job” I always wanted. Maybe we didn’t apply for that job we always wanted to because of a child, or because our spouse didn’t want to move cities. It might not have been the perfect job for us, but we always regret not trying out for it. Do you think Katie Couric regrets giving the nightly news gig a shot? No way. Sometimes you swing and you miss, but you have no regrets later on.10. Been happier more. Not taken life so seriously. Seems strange to say, but most of us don’t know how to have fun. We’re way too serious. We don’t find the humor in life. We don’t joke around. We don’t think we’re funny. So, we go through life very serious. We miss out on half (or maybe all) the fun in life that way. Do something a little silly today. Crack a joke with the bus driver – even if he ends up looking at you weird. Do a little dance. You’ll probably smile, on the inside if not the outside. Now keep doing that, day after day.11. Gone on more trips with the family/friends. Most folks stay close to home. They don’t travel all that much. Yet, big trips with friends and family – to Disney World, to Paris, or even to the lake – are the stuff that memories are made of later in life. We’re all thrown in to some new unfamiliar situation together. We’ve got to figure it out as a group – and it’s fun, even when it rains. We really remember trips.
12. Letting my marriage break down. Back to romance now. More people will divorce than stay together. If you ask these folks, they’ll tell you that it was for the best. They couldn’t take it any more. And, of course, there are some marriages that shouldn’t go on and where divorce is the best for all parties involved. However, if you talk to many people privately, they’ll tell you they regret their marriage breaking up. It’s never just one thing that ends a marriage – even if that one thing is infidelity. There are usually lots of signs and problems leading up to that. The regrets most of us have is that we didn’t correct some or most of those “little things” along the way. We can’t control our spouse but we can control our actions and we know – deep down – we could have done more.
13. Taught my kids to do stuff more. Kids love their parents, but they love doing stuff with their parents even more. And it doesn’t have to be a vacation at the Four Seasons. It could be raking leaves, learning how to throw a football, or cleaning up a play room together. We learned all the little habits that we take for granted in our own behavior from mimicking our parents. If we’re not making the time to do stuff with our kids, we’re robbing them of the chance to mimic us.
14. Burying the hatchet with a family member or old friend. I know family members that haven’t talked to a brother or sister for 30 years. One’s in bad health and will probably die soon. But neither he nor the other brother will make an effort. They’ve both written each other off. And there’s blame on both sides – although I take one’s side more. But these were two guys that were inseparable as kids. They got washed in a bucket in their parents’ kitchen sink together. Now, neither one will make a move to improve things because they think they’ve tried and the other one is too stubborn. They think they’ve done all they can and washed their hands of the relationship. They’ll regret that when one of them is no longer around.
15. Trusting that voice in the back of my head more. Whether it’s as simple as taking a job we weren’t really thrilled about or as complex of being the victim of some crime, most of us have had the experience of a little voice in the back of our heads warning us that something was wrong here. A lot of times, we override that voice. We think that we know best. We do a matrix before taking that job and figure out a way to prove to ourselves that, analytically, this makes sense. Most of the time, we learn later that voice was dead right.
16. Not asking that girl/boy out. Nerves get the best of us – especially when we’re young. We can forgive ourselves that we didn’t screw up enough courage to ask that boy or girl out on a date or to the prom. But that doesn’t mean that we still won’t think about it decades later. Sometimes people regret seeing someone famous or well-known in real life and not going up to them and telling them how much they inspired them in our lives. It’s the same underlying fear. We always we could have just said what we really felt at that moment.
17. Getting involved with the wrong group of friends when I was younger. We do dumb stuff when we’re young. We’re impressionable. We make friends with the wrong crowd, except we don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. They’re our friends and maybe the only people we think that truly understand us. However, we can really get sidetracked by hooking up with this group. Sometimes it leads to drugs or serious crimes. We never start out thinking our choice of friends could lead us to such a difficult outcome.
18. Not getting that degree (high school or college). I’ve spoken with lots of folks who didn’t graduate with a high school or college degree. When I met them, they were already well-known at their job. And there are many examples I can think of where their jobs were very senior and they were very well-respected. However, if the education topic ever came up in private conversation, almost universally, you could tell they regretted not getting their degree. It made them insecure, almost like they worried they were going to be “found out.” Most of these folks will never go back to get it now. Whether they do or not, they’re great at what they do and don’t need to feel bad about not having that piece of paper.
19. Choosing the practical job over the one I really wanted. I was watching CNBC the other day and one finance guy was being asked for advice on what college kids should major in today. He said: “It sounds corny but they’ve got to do what they love.” He’s right. Of course, as a country, we need more engineers, scientists, and other “hard” science folks. But, at the end of the day, you’ve got to live your life, not the government’s. There are many who think they need to take a “consulting job” to build up their experience before settling in to a job they love. Although there are many roads that lead to Rome, you’re probably better off just starting immediately in the area that you love.
20. Spending more time with the kids. I had an old mentor who used to tell me, “when it comes to parenting, it’s not quality of time that’s important, it’s quantity of time.” When we get so busy at work, we comfort ourselves knowing that we’re going to stay late at the office again with the idea that we’ll make it up by taking our son to a ballgame on the weekend. As long as I spend some quality time with him, we think, it will all balance out. It probably won’t. There are lots of busy executives who take control of their schedules in order to either be at home for dinners more or be at those special school events with the kids. Kids do remember that.
21. Not taking care of my health when I had the chance. Everyone doesn’t think of their health – until there’s a problem. And at that point, we promise ourselves if we get better we’ll do a better job with our health. It shouldn’t take a major calamity to get us to prioritize our health and diet. Small habits every day make a big difference here over time.
22. Not having the courage to get up and talk at a funeral or important event. I remember at an old Dale Carnegie class I attended, they told us more people were afraid of public speaking than dying. They’d rather die than give a speech apparently. Yet, when you’re close to death, you’re probably going to wish you’d gotten over those fears on at least a few occasions, but especially at a loved one’s funeral or some important event like a wedding.
23. Not visiting a dying friend before he died. I had a buddy I went to high school with who died 3 years ago. He was in his late 30s with a great wife and 3 great boys. He had cancer for the last 3 years of his life. We’d talked off and on over that time. Two months before he died, he called me and asked if I could come by to visit. I was in the process of moving and too busy with my own family. I said I’d come soon. A month later, it was clear he had days to live. I rushed to the hospital and did get to visit at his bedside before he passed, but he was a different guy from the one I’d spoken to only a month earlier on the phone. He was just hanging on. We hadn’t been best friends and we hadn’t seen much of each other since high school, but I know I’ll always regret not going to visit him earlier when I’d had the chance. What I’d give to have one last regular chat with him.
24. Learning another language. A lot of us travel a lot. Fewer still have studied a second language. And this is a big regret down the road for many of us, even though it might seem like a small thing next to family, career, and romance. A lot of us wish we’d made the time to learn a new language to open up a whole new culture to us.
25. Being a better father or mother. There’s no bigger legacy than our children. Often, they turn out great. When our kids struggle though, there’s nothing bigger than makes us feel guilty. Yet, when they start showing signs of problems – with school, or friends, or otherwise — there’s often been many years that have passed in which we could have and probably should have been spending more time with them. No situation is ever lost though. There is always time to improve our relationships with our kids. But, it can’t wait another day, especially if it’s a relationship that’s been neglected for years.
We can all relate to most of these regrets. We can’t change the past, so this list isn’t meant for you to start a pity party.
The question is what are we going to do with the rest of our lives to ensure we don’t experience any of these regrets later on when we’re in the hospital preparing to say goodbye.
If you have some regrets you’d like to share, please leave them below in the comments for all to read. I’ll call them all out.