How can you live a life without regret?

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Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed nearly 1500 people age 70 to 100+ for his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.” He asked them what life lessons they would pass on.

What did they say about avoiding regrets?

Via 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans:

Here’s the refrigerator list for regret reduction:

1. Always be honest. Avoid acts of dishonesty, both big and small. Most people suffer from serious regret later in life if they have been less than “fair and square.”

2. Say yes to opportunities. When offered a new opportunity or challenge, you are much less likely to regret saying yes and more likely to regret turning it down.

3. Travel more. Travel while you can, sacrificing other things if necessary to do so. Most people look back on their travel adventures (big and small) as highlights of their lives and regret not having traveled more.

4. Choose a mate with extreme care. The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility over the long term.

5. Say it now. People wind up saying the sad words “it might have been” by failing to express themselves before it’s too late. Don’t believe the “ghost whisperers”— the only time you can share your deepest feelings is while people are still alive.

And another important point — go easy on yourself.

Via 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans:

I really do believe that aspiring to a life free of regrets is a worthwhile goal that can help us make better decisions on a daily basis. But there’s one more thing the experts know: for most of us, this goal is unrealistic. So they have another lesson for you: go easy on yourself regarding mistakes and bad choices you have made.

And what was the single most frequent piece of advice the older folks offered? Some version of The Golden Rule.

Via 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans:

One of these sayings, however, outshone all the rest. It came up again and again in answer to various questions, including, “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life” and “What are the major values and principles you live by?” In fact it was probably mentioned more often than any other single piece of advice. What was this important truth?… The Golden Rule.

Some might say it’s just a platitude, and they’d have a point. But there are a lot of platitudes.

Why was this one mentioned the most and why was it so dominant — by far?

Is it just that this is a religious notion and older people are more religious? What’s interesting is we find The Golden Rule at the root of most every major religion:

Via 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans:

The version of the Golden Rule that most of the experts learned in Sunday school comes from the King James Version of the Bible and goes like this: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.” But one reason why the Golden Rule comes up so frequently is that every religious tradition has a version of it.

Hinduism: “Knowing how painful it is to himself, a person should never do to others what he dislikes when done to him by others.”

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

And Islam: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

So maybe it hasn’t stood the test of time because it’s part of religion. Maybe religion has stood the test of time because of it.

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About Eric Barker