1500 Senior Citizens Were Asked What Their Biggest Regret In Life Was

And nearly all of them said this…

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Photo by Alex Boyd of Unsplash

Our minds tend to do the most wandering when left idle — the moments when external stimulation is limited and much of our dialogue turns inward. This is perhaps one of the most detrimental moments throughout our life and it occurs on a near regular basis. This realization led Dr. Karl Pillemer, professor of Human Development at Cornell University, to start what would later be known as the ‘Legacy Project.’

The Legacy Project involved nearly 1500 senior citizens.

“For his research, Pillemer started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.”

He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

This project spanned across nearly a decade and was consolidated into a book to reflect on his findings and share each with others. To Pillemer’s surprise, nearly every single one of the interviewees had the same answer to the question: “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.”

Pillemer shares, “I met Holocaust survivors, refugees from many of the early 20th century’s other major conflicts, and people who lost everything in the Depression,” Pillemer said. “By the time I sat with them 40, 50, 60, or 70 years later, they had built comfortable, often successful and fulfilling lives. Their message was extraordinarily clear: Crises occur, societies change and, with resilience, we recover and move on.”

Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise.

Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

As humans, our minds drift into worry when we aren’t paying attention to any one thing. It’s as if we have allowed it to become a ‘default setting’ for our thoughts. One minute your 17-year-old daughter is trying on prom dresses and the next you’re in tears over the thought of her going off to college, getting married, moving away, having children, and now the entire moment has been robbed by worry.

Your significant other goes for a bike ride and now all you can think about is getting the phone call that he or she was hit by a car. Every moment until they return has been ruined by worry for things outside of your control.

You approach the stage for your college graduation, cap and gown intact, and now the worry about whether or not you will find opportunities in the workforce that meet your degree qualifications sets in. All of a sudden, the feelings of pride, accomplishment, and joy are all eclipsed with worry.

The depth of this discovery is groundbreaking in the world of neuroscience because it brings facticity to the observation that worry does the exact opposite of what positive emotions, such as gratitude, do for the brain. Neuroscientist, Alex Korb, says that feeling grateful activates the brainstem region that produces dopamine.

When met with moments of worry, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, suggests we ask ourselves two questions:

“What am I grateful for in this moment?” and “What do I want to remember?”

It is impossible to experience feelings of worry and gratitude simultaneously. When asking these simple questions, you impact your brain at a biological level. In order to respond, you have to take stock of your life, relationships, and work and search for an answer in the moment.

In the final lesson shared by Pillemer, he goes on to say that the importance of experiencing joy and savoring daily pleasures is necessary for every individual. When people seek happiness, they often get stuck on thoughts surrounding ‘big-ticket’ items like buying a house, finding a lifelong partner, having a child, landing a career, making more money, saving for retirement, etc. When the elders talked about having a positive attitude, it stems back to thinking small (even in the midst of a crisis).

“A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” they shared.

Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.

The parts of your brain that cater to negative emotions will always find a way to rob you of a moment if you allow for it. Shifting gears from worry to focus is imperative for you to avoid approaching the final chapter of your life with regret.

So what are you grateful for today and what will you choose to remember when worry begins to set in?

Written by

Writer. Poet. Philomath. Dog Mom. Traveler. Creator. Wanderer. Teacher. Empath. Author of “Unapologetically Human” - available on Amazon

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