Worry Wastes Your Life

What do older people regret when they look back over their lives? I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question. I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions — that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave:

I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.

Over and over, as the 1,200 elders in our Legacy Project reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a single “do-over” in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting anxiously about the future.

Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it’s not just what they said — it’s how they said it.

John Alonzo, 83, is a man of few words, but I quickly learned that what he had to say went straight to the point. A construction worker, he had battled a lifetime of financial insecurity. But he didn’t think twice in giving this advice:

Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.

That was it. His one life lesson was simply to stop worrying.

James Huang, 87, put it this way:

Why? I ask myself. What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realized that it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.

This surprised me. Indeed, I thought that older people would endorse a certain level of worry. It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries; who fought or lost relatives in World War II would suggest we worry about international issues; and who currently deal with increasing health problems would want us to worry about our health.

The reverse is the case, however. The elders see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Why is excessive worry such a big regret? Because, according to the elders, worry wastes your very limited and precious lifetime. By poisoning the present moment, they told me, you lose days, months, or years that you can never recover.

Betty, 76, expressed this point with a succinct example:

I was working, and we learned that there were going to be layoffs in my company in three months. I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well — I wish I had those three months back.

 Life is simply too short, the oldest Americans tell us, to spend it torturing yourself over outcomes that may never come to pass.

How should we use this lesson, so that we don’t wind up at the end of our lives longing to get back the time we wasted worrying? The elders fortunately provide us with some concrete ways of thinking differently about worry and moving beyond it as we go through our daily lives.

Tip 1: Focus on the short term rather than the long term.

Eleanor is a delightful, positive 102-year-old who has had much to worry about in her long life. Her advice is to avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and to focus instead on the day at hand. She told me:

Well, I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, “This too will pass.” You just can’t go on worrying all the time because it destroys you and life, really. But there’s all the times when you think of worrying and you can’t help it — then just make yourself stop and think: it doesn’t do you any good. You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. You just have to take one day at a time. It’s a good idea to plan ahead if possible, but you can’t always do that because things don’t always happen the way you were hoping they would happen. So the most important thing is one day at a time.

Tip 2: Instead of worrying, prepare.

The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning, which greatly reduces worry. It’s the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them.

Joshua Bateman, 74, summed up the consensus view:

If you’re going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is. At least understand why. Identify it. ‘I’m afraid of X.’ And sometimes you might have good reason. That’s a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.

Tip 3: Acceptance is an antidote to worry

The elders have been through the entire process many times: worrying about an event, having the event occur and experiencing the aftermath. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and being prepared as cures for worry, many of the elders also recommend actively working toward acceptance. Indeed this was most often the message of the oldest experts.

Sister Clare, a 99-year-old nun, shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, and at a certain time of his life, something happened, and it broke his heart. And he was very angry — he just couldn’t be resigned, he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this priest told us, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

 Sister Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind. Now, for instance, somebody might hurt your feelings. You’re going to get back at him or her — well, just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that. I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well, now, she shouldn’t do that. I should tell her that . . .” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that following this piece of elder wisdom may seem impossible to some of you. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. The key characteristic of worry, according to scientists who study it, is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about. This kind of worry — ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones — is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.

A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to our elders, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas down the road the other is deeply regretted as a waste of our all-too-short time on Earth.

It Comes Down to Choices: Wanda's Advice

Wanda, 85, worries that young people won’t be interested in her life lessons. I think she’s wrong about that, because her hard-won lessons for living are ones we all can use.

I write poetry for children and for the old. The media generation escapes me. I really would like to know what is going on, but it all seems as alien as the planet Mars. What could I tell them out of my experience that would have any meaning for them? In my 84-year-old case, I feel that I have lost their attention. If I could re-capture it for fifteen minutes, I would say this:

It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life. When you are young, lots of the choices have to do with sex and relationships. Use your head, and go carefully.

If you have a chance, get as much education as you can, because it gives you options you would not have otherwise. Find out what your strong suite is, and follow up on it. Don’t be afraid to seek advice . If words are your thing, and you think you might make a writer, don’t wait until you are 70 years old as I did.

Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along. This, in fact, is what I did, and I had a wonderful ride – but if someone had asked me “What do you want to do with your life? You’re only going to get one.” I might have focused more, and perhaps made a difference . But no one ever did. Too late for regrets!

One must make a living, and it is not easy these days. But don’t insist on being a millionaire. Focus on making enough money to bring up your children, educate them, save and invest anything extra for your old age.

If you have children, spend time with them, doing “stuff” like going on beach picnics, going to the zoo , reading poetry and stories at bed time, making cookies, at Christmas, singing with them, using art materials( Kids clean up well.) These are things they will remember in later life.

I think I’ll stop here. If I get preachy, no young person is going to listen.

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

Okay, I Admit It: I Like the Taco Bell Elders Ad – What Do You Think?

I anticipated the now viral “Viva Young” Taco Bell ad with dread. As someone who studies and promotes elder wisdom, I have hated just about every ad I’ve seen that tries to portray “with-it oldsters” engaging in hijinks. But Taco Bell’s Super Bowl ad was a genuine – and pleasant – surprise. I’ve watched it many times now, and I like it. In fact, I like it a lot.

It somehow manages to convey freedom and an openness to experience, while using older actors who look, well, the way a lot of older people look. It didn’t make them, or their situations on their wild night out, cute sterotypes. As the director of the ad, Tom Kuatz, put it: “I didn’t treat them differently than I would 20-year-olds. That’s part of the concept. Kissing was kissing on the mouth, dancing was dancing, doing the robot was doing the robot like a 20-year-old would do.”

I’ve spent the last five years talking to the oldest Americans about, among other things, how to make the most of the later years of life. And what they told me is a lot like what this commercial manages to convey in a very short time. For successful aging, they endorse principles like this:

            Become more of a free spirit. Over and over as they reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I’ve given up worrying” and “Why do people worry so much about everything?” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people see fruitless rumination about the future as a young person’s game. As one 83-year old put it: “Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything.  It won’t.  So stop it.”

 Focus on the short term rather than the long term. In the ad, the actors are clearly living in the moment. And that’s what most of the elders we interviewed suggest: focus more on the short term. As a 102-year old told me: “The most important thing is one day at a time. You can plan ahead but it doesn’t always work out.”

Savor the moment. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude depends on thinking small: seeking unexpected momentary pleasures that are experienced intensely. Not every older person wants a wild night of clubbing as shown in the commercial, but they do love to immerse themselves in the present moment.

Take risks. We think of older people as more conservative, but in terms of living life to the fullest in old age, the opposite is the case. They tell their peers (and those of us who will, if all goes well, be old someday) to let go in the last third of life. A 94-year old laughed: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell people to find the magic!” Many elders described life past 65 as a “quest” and “an adventure.” Their advice to us? Endorse embracing excitement, creativity, and risk-taking well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond.

And Taco Bell (whether you like their food or not) managed to convey a bit of that spirit during the Super Bowl.

[Thanks to Robert Powell, blogger on retirement for the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch site, where this post originally appeared.)

Putting Money in Perspective

Many of the elders grew up in the Great Depression, and they knew what it was like to live on almost nothing. But there was something else they learned: you could be very happy with almost nothing if you had a loving family, a supportive neighborhood, and you weren’t competing with a lot of other people who had more than you did.

Maybe this is why so many of the life lessons of the elders had to do with not over-valuing material things. They don’t want us all to be starving artists, but they want you not to be ruled by possessions or an overwhelming urge to make money.

Ed, 76, a retired engineer, told me:

You don’t want your things to own you. The best example that I can give you is my mother and father. Their house was their idol. All the stuff in it was pristine and laid out and my mother saved every book she ever read, every lesson plan, everything she’d ever done, and the house was chock full of all kinds of stuff. Some really good stuff, but, after my father died we took a few things and all the rest went into the dumpster. All that worry, all that thought. And it’s hard to shake. You look at all the stuff and think ‘all this crap owns me, I’m a prisoner of it.’ There’s a lesson in this that I hoped I’ve learned while I’m still alive. I’m not owned by expensive things because they’re expensive.

Micah, 77, stressed not choosing work just for the paycheck:

That was always the way people that measured a success when we were young. Some people went to college but most people went to work. They got a job and went to work, and everything revolved around ‘what are you earning? what are you making?’ and stuff like that. So  the more money you made the more successful you were. And that became of more importance than ‘what should I do with my life? what do you want to develop? what do you want to learn?’ But by learning and experiencing that part of your life, you’re going to be doing something you like doing, you want to do, and money follows. Money follows.

That’s the way it works. And if money doesn’t follow, you’re doing something you like anyway. When I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker. He was a father with his kids and they all did the shoes, leather soles and stuff, and they were a pretty cool family. They loved working there. They were making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big shot corporate guy.

A Key Piece of Elder’s Marriage Advice: Choose Carefully

I’m fascinated by the issue of regret. On the one hand, it’s challenging to deal with regret, and for some people regrets can drag them down in later life. But regret also serves a highly useful function: It helps us avoid mistakes in the future. One very common strategy for “regret prevention” among the elders had to do with finding a life partner. Over and over, elders told me that the most important thing about this critical life decision is: choose carefully, or you will regret it.

Virginia, 73, wanted to make sure her message about not rushing into marriage was strongly conveyed to younger people. Born into rural poverty, she lost her father at age 6. Her mother remarried, had two more children, and Virginia became a caretaker.

I had big responsibilities for a child my age. I took care of the kids, and I can remember when, I think I was in sixth grade, and my mother was not completely well. I mean, she had dizzy spells, and she would keep me home from school a day or two a week to take care of the little ones. I’d get up in the morning and she’d ask me to stay home from school that day. In some ways, I have been a caretaker all my life. It seems like I’m always taking care of someone.

Virginia describes rushing into marriage as one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make, and we should take her words seriously. She’s done it twice.

The first time, I got married to get away from home. I married young, I was only eighteen. I had started college in the mid-1950s, but lack of money and circumstances just didn’t allow me to continue, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I wanted to join the service. And my stepfather said no, and this was in the fifties, you understand, so I listened and I didn’t, but I knew I could no longer live at home. So there was this fellow I’d been going with, and we up and got married the week I turned eighteen. I’d had enough, and my stepfather was difficult to get along with. And they wanted my bed actually, and I didn’t know where to go, what to do, so I got married.

Well, two children and eleven years later, we divorced. It wasn’t a wise decision to marry him but it was an out for me at that time. So please, tell younger people: Don’t marry so young, get an education any way you possibly can. It’s easier in today’s world then it was back then. But when it comes to marriage, don’t rush into things. Give it time before you jump in.

After the divorce, Virginia remarried. Unfortunately, she admitted: “And that was a mistake too. I haven’t had the best luck.” Again, the problem was making the decision too quickly.

I rushed into something I later regretted, it was in the middle 1960s, and my first husband was an alcoholic and he had become very abusive. I decided to return to school, and I was taking courses. I wanted to go to school, get my teaching degree, and then I could leave my first husband and support my children and myself. But it just got so bad I had to leave, and I met this fellow, and there again I rushed into things. It was a way out and my kids liked him.

Well, at first it was good, but after that it was pretty bad. He had girlfriends, he ran around on me, he, oh, he didn’t work, he didn’t provide. So I knew that I had made the same mistake again. By marrying too soon, not knowing the person, he wasn’t what I thought he was. I was really taken in.

I haven’t had an easy time of it, frankly. But maybe I can help others understand. Here’s my advice to the people looking to get married. When you get to be like me in your seventies you realize that life is too short. One of my biggest regrets is wasted opportunities and the need to see that if you’re not happy in a situation you need to change it. I could have made a major difference in my life if I had chosen my husbands carefully, really gotten to know them before committing to the relationships. Know the person in and out before you get married. You think nowadays that you can get out of it easily, but that’s not always the case.

(Do you have marriage advice? Please share it on our new site!

“If We Don’t Forgive…” Sr. Clare’s Advice

Sr. Clare, 83, has been a nun for over six decades. She has devoted her life to helping the poor and to the spiritual life. When asked what older people are likely to regret, she told me:

I think generally speaking; unfinished business with others or with what they wanted to do or be. For example, not asking about family history, or failing to pay attention to family stories. Failing to have important talks with people, especially around forgiveness or assurance of one’s regard for them, and failing to forgive or reconcile.

There’s a wonderful saying – I  can’t remember the person who wrote this but something about: “If we do not forgive, we keep the person imprisoned in our heart and our heart becomes a hardened prison.”  

The Emphasis Should Be on Life!

Among the Legacy Project elders, I found the advice from people in their 90s and beyond to be particularly stirring. The sheer quantity of historical and personal events they have been through makes their comments particularly meaningful. Wilfred, 93, reflected on his long life experience and offers these lessons for living.

Be true to yourself! Times have changed, academic degrees are necessary today in business and even in the armed services; they are the markers used to score you. Nevertheless continue to pursue interests that appeal to you, because that is where the joy fights the pain. If you like what you are doing, happiness and success should come in time.

As I grew up, I abided by a code of ethics that came from my inner self. I always attempted to do the right thing both for my customers in business and with my friends as I went through life. This may sound corny and preachy but it worked for me. I rarely regretted an action and maintained peace of mind.

The most important thing is to keep busy, whether it is business for profit or volunteering services to help others. May I point out that I never thought I was doing a “Good Deed” or a favor, since they were also providing me with companionship and an opportunity to use my alleged mind.

There is a line in “Zorba the Greek” that says, “Life is what you do while you are waiting to die.” The emphasis should be on Life!

A Teacher’s Advice to Young People

Arlene, 83, was raised in the segrated South, became a teacher, and helped many children throughout her life. Life wasn’t always easy for her, but she feels fulfilled and satisfied by what she accomplished. She worries, however, about young people today and shares her advice for them.

My most important life lessons? Well, my marriage life, I was married about thirty years, it was a good marriage. And I was a schoolteacher; I enjoyed that for thirty years. And my parents were good, we weren’t rich, but I had good parents and that’s more important than having a lot of money. We would sit down to the table and eat. And  we went to church; church has become important to me in my older years.

I was born in the South, and I had to sit in the back of the bus, but over the years I’ve become proud of my heritage. I think we’re special.

When I lost my husband, my children became the most important thing in my life. My kids were important, two went to college. One’s a teacher and one’s a chemist.

I’m not rich or anything, I’ve got a fair income, but the main thing is I thank God that I am living, and I do have aches and pains, but they come with growing old.

A big choice for me was becoming a schoolteacher instead of a lawyer or something. I found that it’s not making as much money, but it’s been more enjoyable. Sometimes in teaching you not only teach, but you’re a friend to those kids. It’s not just teaching, it’s listening to the kids. And most of my time, being a Black teacher, I spent quite a bit of time with the white students and I found out they didn’t care about color. If you were their teacher and on their side, that’s all that matters. And my decision to go to church rather than going to nightclubs was good. I never got into drugs; I found that was a good way of doing it. I’d rather be in church than going to the bar every week and doing this and that.

Being honest is the main thing. When it’s all said and done, you have to do things the right way. There’s no outdoors or backdoors to lying. Somewhere along the line, you have to be honest with yourself. And by being honest with yourself, doors are open. I’m not “religious-religious,” but I do believe that if I do the right thing and so forth, things will open up for me.

About advice for young people: I found out two things by being a teacher: one problem is drugs, and the second problem is they are having babies. They’re out there, they never go to school, they start out on the corner selling drugs, and they don’t know anything about education and so forth. And we’re paying more money to house them in prison than we are if we could get them in and teach them the right and wrong. I cry about it sometimes to see our young people out selling drugs and they think that’s important. But their parents never taught them the right way of doing things.

Now, about getting old. As you grow older, take it day by day. I know we cry about this and that but we know we’ve got to grow old, so we should try and do the best we can. I retired about five or six years earlier than I should of, but I couldn’t help it because health problems set in and I had to. I would say if you can, try to prepare for retirement. But take a day at a time and things will work out.

Don’t Worry about What Everyone Else Thinks

Winona, 72, tells younger people that they need to be true to themselves, rather than trying to please everyone else.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that when I was younger I paid much too much attention to what everybody else thought. I didn’t always do what I thought was best. Instead, I often did what everybody else thought I should be doing. And every time I stood my ground and did what I thought I ought to be doing, I did better and things went better. I cared too much about what other people thought about my profession and about me as a person. I think that’s the biggest lesson and it spills over into so many different things.

And that led me to another another life lesson: that following the rules doesn’t always get you where you want to go. There are ways of staying within the boundaries of legality without following every single rule that your mother laid down for you. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken and I think I paid a little too much attention to the rules. They got me quite far, but I think I would have gotten much farther had I not paid attention to the rules, not caring whether people like what you are doing.