Evolution left us with a few emotions we could do without. Like regret, for instance. Who needs that? It's hard enough to make the right decisions without the benefit of being psychic, let alone have to stew about what we should have been able to see but couldn't. What's the point of being dogged by a tense that's long past the expiration date?
It turns out there may be a purpose to regret after all. Some researchers have found that the biggest regrets come not from what you do but from what you didn't do -- an opportunity unpursued, things left unsaid, life unexperienced. You're more disappointed by the course untaken, known as the "inaction effect" in one study, which demonstrated that, when action is called for, failure to act produces more regret than actions that don't work out. One survey found that people dwell more on regrets over untaken paths than those that were taken, while other research shows there's more intensity to the regret that comes from lost opportunities and that it stays with you longer.
Regret appears to have survived into the 21st century to encourage you to act, to boldly go where you haven't before. Not acting on the opportunities that come your way is such a revolting thought for your brain that the regret it touches off makes you not want to experience that again and more likely to act the next time.
We seem to be wired to not leave possibilities on the table. But, of course, we do, because we're wired with some other tendencies, too -- fear, procrastination, cynicism, prior disappointments. These naysayers and others keep us in idle when the light turns green in realms from career to relationships and especially in the arena that's easiest to not act on, since it's not considered a priority: living life.
Before you know it, another year has gone by without many memories beyond the work station. What comes up for you in the life department as you look back at 2010? What notable events stand out in your personal life apart from work and world events?
If you're drawing a blank, don't be alarmed. Your brain neurons are so programmed to seek out novelty that when they get the same data day in and day out, they actually stop noticing it, which is why nothing is coming up. Your neurons, like regret itself, are trying to tell you something: If you want a memorable life, you have to live life a life worth remembering.
Cindy Roberts and her colleagues on the Hope Afloat dragon boat paddling team in Philadelphia used to have blank years. Not anymore. Each of them is a breast cancer survivor, a fact that forever changed the assumptions that drive life postponement, such as the notion that you can always get to it later. You can't always get to it later.
I met Roberts and her inspiring teammates when they were competing in a dragon boat festival in Orlando, Fla. They were among a host of life enthusiasts, from salsa dancers to choir singers to badminton fanatics I met along the road to "Don't Miss Your Life," my new book on the power of engaged passions. "My priorities are way different," Roberts told me. "What matters now is the time I have left on this planet and living my life. I don't know if I'll make it to 65. I'm not going to wait 20 years I might not have. I want to see the world now." What these women talk about, they do. Roberts took her first international trip, to Argentina, and loved it.
At the water's edge before the race started, I met Lisa Stanton, a leader of another team, the Vermont Dragon Heart Sisters. Her team was getting ready to paddle to the starting line of the race. She pointed out a woman sitting at the front of the boat who was the designated drummer, keeping the stroke rhythm on a drum, a tradition in dragon boat racing. "Her doctor made it possible for her to be here today," Stanton said. "She's very sick and may not make it another week, but she wanted to be with the team one last time. She doesn't have the strength to paddle, so she's going to drum."
As the team paddled out, I could hear the sound of one tenacious drummer. I vowed to remember that scene whenever I think I have a problem. We are far too oblivious to the privilege of our own breathing. The paddlers of Hope Afloat know what most of us don't: that time is the real money. We assume there's an inexhaustible supply of the temporal ether in which we drift, but the inventory is very limited -- and we never know when the clock's going to run out. These women are messengers, letting the rest of us know there's not a minute to waste in getting to "our appointment with life," as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it.
We keep droves of appointments throughout the year, but how many are with the act of living free and full, without guilt, without rushing, without concern about the result or outcome? As the new year dawns, it's a good time to make sure 2011 is different. Let's change our relationship with time outside the job and make it as valuable as any of our professional appointments. We've been led us to believe free time is slacking, but it's actually the point of everything we're working for -- the time for friends, family, interests, hobbies, volunteering, discovery. Free time is your time, your freedom to be and do what you want, and that satisfies key core needs when you use it in an engaging way.
Take possession of your nights, weekends and vacations by not burning up your time on any old busywork, by not trying to make every moment productive, by not defaulting to rote spectating and watching others do the living, by not letting transient moods keep you locked up in the house. Revalue off-the-clock time by acting as if you own it. It's yours.
You can do that by carving out more "appointments" for your life and improving activation skills, including risk-taking and initiating skills, part of an arsenal I call "life intelligence." Start by budgeting at least one hour a week for a recreational activity outside the job and family duties. Try something you've always wanted to do or something that can infuse your life with exhilarating new talents and folks. I met people whose lives were transformed by everything from singing in a recreational choir (the Golden Bridge Community Choir in Hollywood, an amazing experience I tried myself) to rock climbing.
Step outside the familiar bunker more in 2011 by seeing risk not as something to fear but simply as exploration. Most of the risks we don't take and regret later have more to do with potential damage to egos than life or limb. When you venture as an explorer, acting as a lifelong learner, you eliminate the failure framework that keeps so many of us from doing what we want. Explore with venture aptitude, and you remove the ego and the force-field standing between you and your life. Researchers say we're all more adventurous than we think. One study showed that when you do an activity such as whitewater rafting, you discover the risk is lower and your competence higher than you thought.
It's all in our heads, both the fears and the regrets that pile up from them. Take out the most effective regret insurance there is in 2011. Get out and live. Life is short; regrets are forever.
Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life"," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.