Regret is a painful emotion made even worse by the feeling that you cannot have a do-over.
Whatever chances you missed or mistakes you made in life, there is no turning back time.
So rather than wait for regret to creep in and deal with the after-effects, it’s far better to do our best to avoid it in the first place.
By making sure we say a big fat YES to the following things.
1) Living a life that is true to you
…and is not based on other people’s expectations.
Don’t take my word for it. This has been shown to be the number one regret of people on their deathbed.
The first of our regrets comes from research done by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware. She decided to record the most common regrets of the dying.
And living their lives based on what other people expected of them was what came top.
In order to feel any sense of true satisfaction in life, we have to base our choices on our own values.
Yet, the number of people falling foul of this regret shows that it is all too easy to put the feelings, beliefs, and thoughts of others above our own.
Your parents, your peers, your loved ones, or even society in general may not always understand or like the way you decide to govern your life.
But it is your life to live, and nobody else’s. The people who live without regret know this.
They say yes to an life that unapologetically reflects who they really are — what matters to them and what makes them unique.
Your life so easily becomes a lie otherwise.
2) More play and less work
It’s often quipped that nobody turns around on their deathbed and exclaims that they wish they’d spent more time at the office.
And it turns out that is very much true.
Because another one of Ware’s regrets that makes the list is spending way too long working hard.
Here’s the thing:
Plenty of people get a strong sense of purpose and enjoyment from their jobs. That’s great. Pursuing ambitions and goals is also admirable. I think it’s wonderful to contribute.
But we can all too easily lose ourselves in our work. It ends up being how many people define themselves.
Of course, a lot of that is down to pressure from society that pushes us to strive, achieve, make more money, or climb the ladder.
Yet unless we want to end up with regret, we need to periodically pause and take stock.
We must check that the time, energy, and sacrifices that we make for work are worth it and feel aligned.
People who live without regrets strike the right balance. They want to enjoy life and make time for the things that bring them pleasure.
And of course, the people too…
3) Nurturing your relationships
Countless studies have noted that one of the biggest keys to our happiness has nothing to do with us…
It has everything to do with other people.
It’s our relationships that bring us the most meaning, joy, and well-being.
Research has pointed to the fact that strong social connections are attached to our strongest emotions.
Good ones bring us better health, contentment, and calm.
But we can all too easily take them for granted.
We don’t give them the attention they deserve and the quality can suffer because of that.
Specifically, it was the neglect of friendships that many people noted when on their deathbed, with many people remorseful that they hadn’t stayed in touch with friends.
It’s an important reminder that it’s people, not things, that matter.
Of course, if we want strong and healthy relationships, we’ve got to let our guard down and get better at vulnerability.
4) Letting people know how you truly feel
So many of life’s disappointments come from our failure to speak up.
We can expect others to read our minds or we’re simply too afraid of being honest.
We may worry that speaking up would mean rocking the boat. And that’s not a risk we’re always willing to take.
It demands courage to share what you think and feel with others.
We expose ourselves to being rejected. We may have to face unpleasant feelings from frustration and unmet expectations.
But leaving words unspoken is a recipe for regret.
The courage to express your feelings means you put everything on the table. Regardless of how things pan out, you stay true to yourself.
In the words of Bronnie Ware herself:
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
5) Allowing yourself to be happy right now
Here’s the funny thing about chasing happiness:
In doing so, we put it off for another day.
We pin our hopes of happiness on “one day” and “when”.
I’ll be happy if I can get through the rest of the year and can reward myself with a vacation. I will be more satisfied when I get a promotion at work. I will finally feel good about myself when I meet the love of my life.
We can be so determined to find our happiness somewhere out there, that we blind ourselves to the reality that it is a choice.
It sounds oversimplistic, but the fact is that the only person stopping you from feeling happy in this very moment is you.
Staying stuck in our comfort zone. Living for tomorrow, rather than today. These are trappings of the mind that delay a sense of well-being that we can tap into right now.
6) Opportunities that scare you
Mark Twain once remarked, “We regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.”
He had a point.
Sure, when we do something and it doesn’t work out, we can feel bad about it. We may wish we’d made a different choice.
But when we fail to try in the first place, then we must live with the fact that we will never know. And that can be much worse because imagination is a powerful thing.
“What ifs” tend to create far more regret in our minds because they bring with them more question marks.
That’s probably why research has found that the most enduring of our regrets come from the actions that we did not take.
A 1994 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concluded that “people’s regrets follow a systematic time course: actions cause more pain in the short-term, but inactions are regretted more in the long run.”
That means saying yes to things and going for it, even if we’re unsure how it’ll all pan out.
7) Believing in and trusting yourself
Telling someone to simply swallow their pride, take a chance, show the world the real them, or express themselves freely is of course easier said than done.
The reason these are such common regrets in the first place is because of how hard it can be to put into practice.
Those who manage to embrace life and live without regrets have said yes to one very important thing:
They use this as the solid foundation that allows them to find the courage they need.
If we’re not going to second-guess ourselves every step of the way, we need to build up our self-worth and self-esteem.
That also means we’ve got to show ourselves the kindness of forgiveness.
8) Forgiving yourself and others when things don’t always work out
In many ways, regret is a way of saying:
- I don’t like how things turned out
- I wish it had been different
Whilst it’s a natural emotion, it takes hold of us when we get stuck in unhelpful rumination rather than acceptance.
Acceptance is such a powerful antidote for regrets because, in the words of Lily Tomlin:
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
When we learn to open our hearts we can:
- Forgive ourselves for our past mistakes
- Forgive other people who we feel have wronged us
- Forgive life itself for dealing us a bad hand
In doing so, we make peace with what already is and free ourselves from the bitterness of regret.
Living without regret means finding your own recipe for success and happiness
Whilst we’ve touched upon some of the biggest universal regrets to befall people (and how to avoid them), we’re all different.
That means you have to find out what matters most to you in life and then shape your world based on it.
Avoiding the sting of regret ultimately rests on that — figuring out what makes you tick, discovering what you want (and don’t want), and going for it without fear or apology.