Looking for advice on living well? A reasonable strategy is to consult those who’ve been doing it for awhile – older people. What have these experts learned over the courses of their lives that the rest of us are struggling to discover?

Recently, palliative care worker Bronnie Ware discovered that the dying people in her care expressed surprisingly similar life regrets. These included working too hard, not following their dreams, and simply not letting themselves be happier. Underlying this seemed to be a common theme, which was placing too much priority on things that turned out not to matter all that much in the end – striving for raises and promotions, holding grudges, clinging to the comfort of the familiar - and, as a result, missing out on so many potentially rich, happy, and meaningful moments.

In a fascinating in-depth series of interviews with older Americans, gerontologist Karl Pillemer uncovered similar, specific life lessons. Notably, many of his interview subjects expressed regret that they hadn’t traveled more while they were young, healthy, and able. Often, they had dreams of places they hoped to someday go, but then more pressing needs arose and those dreams got pushed off. Sadly, due to health problems or the untimely loss of their travel partners, for many, these dreams never materialized. But, on the upside, those who did seize the opportunity to travel looked back on these moments as some of their greatest joys.

It is well-known that Americans are notoriously bad at making time for travel. We work too much, get much less vacation time than those in other developed countries, and often fail to use the vacation time we are given. Interestingly, though, we make detailed Pinterest travel dream boards and bucket lists that feature fantastical images of tropical islands, vibrant cityscapes, or sweeping mountain ranges. We sigh and say, “someday”. It’s so easy to put it off, saying “I can’t afford it,” “I don’t have time to plan a trip right now,” or “I’ll go when the kids are grown.”

The experts’ advice? Do it now, because that “someday” may not come. Scrimp a little. Buy less stuff. Go on the cheap. One of Pillemer’s interviewees, aged 78, said, “If you have to make a decision whether you want to remodel your kitchen or take a trip—well, I say, choose the trip! And travel when you’re young because your health allows you to do things you can’t do when you get older. Material things, you can wait on those” (p. 183).

Research backs her up. Over and over again, it has been found that spending disposable income on life experiences brings much more happiness than spending it on material possessions. All of that stuff gets old, dusty, and obsolete over time, but memories of extraordinary life experiences only get better.

Think back over your life. What opportunities do you regret? What do you count as your most cherished memories? With New Year’s resolution season fast approaching, maybe it’s time to consider the advice of life’s experts and seize the opportunities for exploration and enrichment that travel provides, even if the remodeled kitchen has to wait. One 76 year-old interviewee sums it up, “We loved every minute of it, and because we did our traveling, I have no regrets” (p.182).   

References

Pillemer, K. (2012). 30 lessons for living: Tried and true advice from the wisest Americans.

Van Boven, L. & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202.

Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing.

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