The impact that regret can have on our lives is sometimes difficult to foresee. But what has recently become much clearer to me is that regret is an incredibly powerful and enduring feeling that is directly related to our happiness in the end.
Not too long ago a good friend of mine passed away—he was in his early forties and left a lot of loving friends and family behind. Gary's battle with cancer lasted several years, and during that time I learned what a true fighter he was. When he was first diagnosed, the doctors told him he had only a few months to live. But Gary refused to give up and remained dedicated to working hard, traveling, and most of all spending quality time with his children in the midst of grueling chemotherapy regimens. Gary had always lived life to the fullest and was a shining example of how to seize the day and live in the moment.
Six months before he died, Gary came to visit me. We sat on the back patio enjoying the beautiful summer day and reminiscing about old times. But when I asked Gary how he was feeling, he didn't want to talk about it. Instead he asked me lots of questions—what my family had planned for vacation, how work was going, and what my dreams were for the future. Then he asked what my biggest regret was.
"My biggest regret?" I repeated.
"Yes. If there was one thing in your life that you could go back and do differently, what would it be?" he clarified.
"I need more time to think about it," I replied, "but since you brought it up, what's your biggest regret?"
I watched Gary's tired face grow tormented in the uncomfortable silence that followed. Finally he spoke. "There was a girl I dated many years ago… I should have never let her go." Gary paused, then said, "She was my soul mate, yet I didn't realize it until twenty-three years later. When I got sick, she started calling me in the hospital. It was then that I realized what a deep connection she and I had, one that I somehow failed to recognize when I knew her back in college. I can't help but wonder how my life would have been different with her in it, and I kick myself because now it's too late. When people say that life is short, I literally know what they mean. As my longtime friend, you must promise me that you'll always do your best to live your life without any more regrets. For that you will always thank me." Gary hugged me, and I knew it was the last time I would ever have the opportunity to spend a quality afternoon with him.
Three things became clearer to me on that day than ever before:
• We all have regrets.
• Our regrets go with us to the grave.
• There is no time like the present to start living life without any more of them.
This wake-up call was Gary's gift to me. The choices we make in life, as well as the missed opportunities, have a profound impact on our happiness in the end. But to start working toward the goal of a life with no more regrets, we first have to understand what regrets are and why we have them in the first place.
What Are Regrets?
My definition of regrets is as follows:
Regrets are the things we do that we wish we hadn't done and the things we fail to do that we wish we had done, both of which result in unhappiness, disappointment, or remorse.
In other words, regrets are all about our actions and inactions. Therefore, regrets are about our behaviors and the feelings of unhappiness, disappointment, or remorse we attach to those behaviors. For example, if you've ever broken a promise, acted inconsistently with your values, made poor choices, or hurt someone as a result of what you've said or done (or failed to say or do), it was your behaviors that led to your feelings of regret.
Understanding regret as a product of our behaviors has direct implications for how we make decisions. Typically we bring a number of elements into our decision-making framework, such as timing, context, opportunity, cost, how we'll feel about the decision after it is made, what the impact will be, and so on. For every decision we make, we must also ask the following two important questions as a standard part of our decision-making process:
• Will I have regrets if I do it (or don't do it)?
• Will I avoid having regrets if I do it (or don't do it)?
For example, will it cause a fight with my wife? Will I cut it too close to make it to my destination? Will I be forgiven if I do it? If I don't speak up now, will I regret it forever? The takeaway here is that if you are seeking greater happiness in your life, then the daily decisions you make need to take into account the regret factor.
Adapted from Marc Muchnick's latest book No More Regrets! 30 Ways to Greater Happiness and Meaning in Your Life. For more information go to: www.no-more-regrets.com.