Any therapist who has worked at all with senior citizens will tell you that a palpable regret, laced with grief, is the profoundest thing they see in their offices. According to research and clinical experience, people regret choices about education, work, and, most profoundly, failings in close relationships – as partners, parents, siblings, adult children.
It serves us well at any age to take time out of our busy lives occasionally to think of what we might regret in the future. Now is the time – the only time – to prevent regret. And the best way to start is to consider your legacy. What do you want to leave behind, in terms of memories of those you care about? What do you want to contribute to humanity?
Begin by asking what kind of person, spouse, and parent you most want to be. No matter how you answer, the path to becoming that person, spouse, and parent will likely include the following:
Focus on how you want to feel
Self-obsession is focus on how we feel; self-improvement comes from focus on how we want to feel.
Focus on how we feel brings into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings. This creates an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. For example, “I feel resentful. I have a right to feel resentment, because of this, this, this, and this, not to mention that, that, that, and that. I put up with a lot over the years. This is exactly like what I had to put up with in the past, or not exactly, but close enough.”
This whole process serves to habituate the feelings, i.e., make them habits that will recur under stress. In adults, the vast majority of emotional reactions are habituated. Feelings are always about the past, and they will, over the long run, keep you repeating past mistakes.
A better strategy is to focus on how you want to feel, which will be more future-oriented and less susceptible to the feed-back loop of past mistakes. For example, “I feel resentful, but I want to feel kind.” I think of times in the past when I have felt kind, and recognize that I really like myself better at those times. I imagine myself doing things that will bring those feelings to life, such as wishing others happiness and wellbeing. I practice allowing myself to be concerned with the wellbeing of my significant others. I practice behaviors that embody my concern for them.
Of course, for the process to work, I really have to want to be kind, rather than resentful, i.e., I have to want to feel more valuable, rather than temporarily more powerful from the tiny dose of adrenalin that comes with resentment.
Control the meaning of your life
Think of the things that have the profoundest influence on our lives and how little control we have over them. We didn’t choose our parents; we didn’t sit down with God and say, “I’ll take those two over there!” We didn’t choose what illnesses our mothers suffered during pregnancy or whether they smoked or took aspirin. Who decided how much money their families would have, what early childhood illnesses or accidents they would experience, which schools they would go to, what kind of teachers and peers they would find there? Who chose whether other children would like or bully them, respect or humiliate them? We simply have no control over of the major influences on our lives.
Yet we have absolute control over what everything in our lives means to us. If we define the meaning of our lives by bad things that happened to us, we create chronic states of powerlessness and resentment, with intermittent depression. If we control the meaning of our lives by systematically increasing the value of our experience, we create a life of meaning, purpose, and personal power.
The first law of personal power is focus. When we focus on what we cannot control, like the behavior of other people, we feel powerless and suffer the most impotent kind of resentment and anger. When we focus on what we can control – the meaning of our experience – we feel empowered. To feel powerful and valuable, make the most benign interpretation of your experience that is realistically possible. This will lead to a certain amount of disappointment, but an overall gigantic boost to long-term wellbeing and the prevention of regret.
Stand for deeper, more humane values
Standing for our deeper humane values, e.g., compassion and kindness, moves us to appreciate or tolerate those who differ from us.
Ignoring or violating deeper values makes us vulnerable to guilt, shame, and anxiety. We have more self-doubt and, to some extent, seem phony, which increases the likelihood of feeling devalued by others. We become hypersensitive to unfair treatment we receive but largely insensitive to unfair treatment we impart. We perceive more threat and require more anger as defense.
Worst of all, consistently ignoring and violating humane values can turn us into psychopaths, individually and as a culture, as history shows in 20th Century Nazis and 19th Century slave owners.
Standing for your deeper, most humane values is almost assured to prevent the more harmful types of regret.
Make the world a better place
Our brains are simply not wired for self-obsession. The more we think about ourselves, the less in touch with reality we become. In contrast, self-awareness necessarily includes awareness of the world in which the self resides. In other words, you can make yourself enduringly happy (beyond temporary feelings states) only by striving, in some small way, to make world you live in a better place.
The Golden Promise: If you focus continually on making the world a better place in some small way, you and those you love will be happier, your life will have more meaning and purpose, and you’ll create a legacy that will give you peace in your later years.
To transcend is to go beyond limits, to become greater. The transcendent life is focused on growing into the most empowered and humane persons we can be. This, I believe, is the evolved function of pain - not to suffer or to identify with suffering or with victimhood - but to grow beyond it. The natural motivation of pain is to motivate behavior that will heal, improve, and repair.
Much of the suffering in the world occurs when we violate what is most important to us by acting on what is less important. If you think of the big mistakes you’ve made in life, nearly every one involves violating a deeper value by acting on something that was not as important to you. In fact, we consistently violate more important values by acting on less important feelings and impulses. We’re susceptible to this recurring error for two reasons.
Deeper values do not run on automatic pilot like habits and impulses. Rapidly processed in the brain, habits and impulses largely bypass the prefrontal cortex (where we make decisions based on values). If we consistently act on superficial feelings, which are largely habits, we’ll consistently violate our deeper values.
Deeper values are less in consciousness than ego-defense, impression management, and preferences and tastes. Yet fidelity to deeper values provides a sense of authenticity, which makes ego-defense and impression-management unnecessary. In general, if I feel defensive or that it’s important that I make you think a certain way about me, I need to get in touch with my deeper values (e.g., compassion, kindness, respect) to experience genuine self-value.
To compensate for the bias of consciousness, we need a daily reminder of what is most important to us. This will lead to a transcendent life and almost assuredly prevent regret.
Humans have evolved a myriad of ways to experience and express spirituality. From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t matter which way you choose, whether it be some notion of God or higher power or the cosmos or the sea of humanity or harmony with nature. We function at our best with some notion of connection to something larger that overrides immediate selfish concerns.
What all forms of spirituality have in common is a striving to create light. Of course, light also makes shadows, which deters many people from the spiritual sense that would enrich their lives. The answer to the dilemma is not to dwell in the shadows but to create more light. The ultimate in spiritual experience comes from as bright a light as we can muster from a multitude of sources. The more light we create, the less likely we are to suffer regret.