What do older people regret when they look back over their lives? I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question. I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions -- that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave:
I wish I hadn't spent so much of my life worrying.
Over and over, as the 1,200 elders in our Legacy Project reflected on their lives, I heard versions of "I would have spent less time worrying" and "I regret that I worried so much about everything." Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a single "do-over" in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting anxiously about the future.
Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it's not just what they said -- it's how they said it.
John Alonzo, 83, is a man of few words, but I quickly learned that what he had to say went straight to the point. A construction worker, he had battled a lifetime of financial insecurity. But he didn't think twice in giving this advice:
Don't believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won't. So stop it.
That was it. His one life lesson was simply to stop worrying.
James Huang, 87, put it this way:
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 realized that 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.
This surprised me. Indeed, I thought that older people would endorse a certain level of worry. It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries; who fought or lost relatives in World War II would suggest we worry about international issues; and who currently deal with increasing health problems would want us to worry about our health.
The reverse is the case, however. The elders see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Why is excessive worry such a big regret? Because, according to the elders, worry wastes your very limited and precious lifetime. By poisoning the present moment, they told me, you lose days, months, or years that you can never recover.
Betty, 76, expressed this point with a succinct example:
I was working, and we learned that there were going to be layoffs in my company in three months. I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well -- I wish I had those three months back.
Life is simply too short, the oldest Americans tell us, to spend it torturing yourself over outcomes that may never come to pass.
How should we use this lesson, so that we don't wind up at the end of our lives longing to get back the time we wasted worrying? The elders fortunately provide us with some concrete ways of thinking differently about worry and moving beyond it as we go through our daily lives.
Tip 1: Focus on the short term rather than the long term.
Eleanor is a delightful, positive 102-year-old who has had much to worry about in her long life. Her advice is to avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and to focus instead on the day at hand. She told me:
Well, I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, "This too will pass." You just can't go on worrying all the time because it destroys you and life, really. But there's all the times when you think of worrying and you can't help it -- then just make yourself stop and think: it doesn't do you any good. You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. You just have to take one day at a time. It's a good idea to plan ahead if possible, but you can't always do that because things don't always happen the way you were hoping they would happen. So the most important thing is one day at a time.
Tip 2: Instead of worrying, prepare.
The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning, which greatly reduces worry. It's the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them.
Joshua Bateman, 74, summed up the consensus view:
If you're going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is. At least understand why. Identify it. 'I'm afraid of X.' And sometimes you might have good reason. That's a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.
Tip 3: Acceptance is an antidote to worry.
The elders have been through the entire process many times: worrying about an event, having the event occur and experiencing the aftermath. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and being prepared as cures for worry, many of the elders also recommend actively working toward acceptance. Indeed this was most often the message of the oldest experts.
Sister Clare, a 99-year-old nun, shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:
There was a priest that said mass for us, and at a certain time of his life, something happened, and it broke his heart. And he was very angry -- he just couldn't be resigned, he couldn't get his mind off it. Just couldn't see why it had happened.
So he went to an elderly priest and said, "What shall I do? I can't get rid of it." And the priest said, "Every time it comes to your mind, say this." And the priest said very slowly, "Just let it be, let it be." And this priest told us, "I tried that and at first it didn't make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer."
Sister Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.
So many things come to your mind. Now, for instance, somebody might hurt your feelings. You're going to get back at him or her -- well, just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that. I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can't help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, "Well, now, she shouldn't do that. I should tell her that . . ." Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, "If I did that, then what?" And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.
Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that following this piece of elder wisdom may seem impossible to some of you. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. The key characteristic of worry, according to scientists who study it, is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about. This kind of worry -- ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones -- is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.
A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to our elders, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas down the road the other is deeply regretted as a waste of our all-too-short time on Earth.