5 Strategies to Live Without Regrets

It’s December 31 and you are wrapping up the year tonight. This can come with excitement and resolution to become a newer, better version of yourself. According to a recent survey by Statista, the top new year’s resolutions of 2023 were the following:

  1. Exercise more (52 percent)
  2. Eat healthier (50 percent)
  3. Lose weight (40 percent)
  4. Save more money (39 percent)
  5. Spend more time with family and friends (37 percent)
  6. Spend less time on social media (20 percent)
  7. Reduce stress on the job (19 percent)
  8. Reduce spending on living expenses (19 percent)

While the end of the year can come with excitement, it can also come with major regrets. On a day like today, I would like to invite you to think about goals and resolutions differently as you wrap up your year (or begin your new year—whenever you are reading this).

In March 2022, Jodi Wellman, MAPP, gave a TEDx talk that has now been viewed by over a million people. In her talk, she shares one thing that can help bring more life to our days: considering our death.

This may seem a bit morbid, but hear me out (and go watch her talk). Wellman states in the talk that we all only have about 4,000 Mondays to live. How many Mondays do you have left? Regardless of that very definitive number of Mondays, you still have today to decide how to live in what Wellman calls “squander-free” living.

Another inspiring woman, Bronnie Ware, brought to life the deaths of those she cared for as a palliative caretaker. In her bestselling book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she highlights the top regrets people express on their deathbeds. Here are the five regrets along with five strategies to avoid these regrets on your last Monday.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

What are the expectations others have of you in your mind? How can you increase your courage to live a life true to yourself? What does that life look like?

One study by Dr. Laura King had participants write about their best possible selves in a future where they have achieved everything desired, after working hard towards it. Participants who did so for 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days were found to have improved mood after as well as decreased illness, compared to the control group, five months after the exercise. A meta-analysis of 28 studies showed that this same exercise is an effective intervention to improve well-being.

So give it a try. Even just one day for 20 minutes. It will probably put you in a better mood and it might just change your life!

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

The average person spends 90,000 hours of their life at work. That’s a lot of time!

How can you make the best of that time? And are you working too hard? Or are you working on things that don’t bring you the meaning that you want in life? Research on self-determination theory shows that those who really love their job tend to have a few things present: relatedness (they feel connected and have a sense of belonging at work), autonomy (they feel free to exercise innovative ideas), mastery (they believe they are improving themselves) and purpose (their work is aligned with what they believe is personally meaningful).

Most of those who expressed this regret were men from an older generation who spent more time working than doing things they loved. What one thing can you add to next year that will take the sting of regret out of working too hard? Or do you need a different job altogether? This might be your year for a big change.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

According to the ADAA, each year, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. impacting around 40 million adults which is around 19 percent of the population.

While anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors (genetics, brain chemistry, personality, life events, etc.) one psychiatrist David Burns, M.D., shares a technique in his book When Panic Attacks, that he calls “the hidden emotion model” where patients would just hide their feelings and avoid saying what they really felt or believed. These were all patients with major panic disorders associated with extreme anxiety.

Burns said that around 75 percent of his patients with anxiety were sweeping some problem or feeling under the rug and when they had the courage to express their feelings about the problem, the anxiety almost always disappeared. He states that this is “based on the idea that when you’re anxious, often there is some problem or feeling that you’re avoiding because you don’t want to upset anyone or hurt their feelings. You may be angry with a friend or want something that you think you shouldn’t want.”

Perhaps you aren’t one of those 40 million people with anxiety, but maybe you still need the courage to express your feelings. How would your life change this year if you expressed how you really felt more often?

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

There is robust evidence showing that those who stay in touch with their friends and are more socially connected tend to live longer and healthier lives. However, despite this, most don’t see social connectedness and community belonging as factors that could impact health.

I just analyzed data from 1,474 participants across the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia asking them how important social connection was for health outcomes, compared to other more established behavioral factors like exercise, not smoking, having a healthy weight, and not drinking excessive alcohol. The collective rank of social connection from these participants put social factors as the least important other than flu vaccination—yet meta-analytic research shows that it is the most important (yes, even more so than smoking and exercise)!

What friendship can you reignite this year?

5. wish I had let myself be happier.

While you may think that happiness will happen in the future, the only time happiness can happen is in the present. American culture is obsessed with achievement and accomplishing amazing things during our lives, yet we struggle to sit present in the moment and appreciate what we have at this moment. When was the last time you experienced pure awe?

One researcher, Lani Shiota, has done significant research on the experience of awe. It is a present experience that doesn’t happen in the future and it is all-encompassing; it dampens the body’s stress response and changes how we process information.

Where can you go this year to experience more awe in your life and let yourself be happy? What other permission do you need to let yourself be happier?

Less Regret This Year

I hope you have the courage to live a life true to yourself, do meaningful work, express how you really feel stay in touch with your friends and let yourself be happy this year. I also hope this year isn’t your last, but no one knows when they will die so do your best to live this year with no regrets.

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