What do people regret as they approach the end of their lives? That's what someone wanted to know on question-and-answer site Quora recently.
The query turned up many of the answers you'd expect--marital infidelities, career opportunities not taken, childlessness. Of course, it's good to know about the big, heart-wrenching mistakes that haunt people as they get older so you can look out for similar missteps in your own life. But a quick online read is unlikely to have much influence on these deeply personal and highly complex aspects of your life.
That doesn't mean that the Quora answers weren't useful, however. Among the dramatic regrets you already know you should avoid (but owing to inevitable human frailty might fall victim to anyway) were several smaller life mistakes that you've probably never thought of as leading to end-of-life regret. Yet answer after answer noted that many of the missteps we look back on with sadness are not only relatively small but also relatively easy to avoid.
A blog post alone probably can't help much when it comes to keeping your marriage together or choosing your career path, but it can point out these other small but common regrets so you can start taking steps to avoid them today. Here are five.
1. Trying too hard to please others
This one was mentioned in a famous article by a hospice nurse who had ample opportunity to learn about the regrets of the dying. What's the most common of all, according to her? "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
It was also a frequent response on Quora. "Nobody is more worthy of love in the entire universe than you," writes blogger and investor James Altucher in one such answer. "I wish I had reminded myself of that more. I could've saved all of that time where I was trying to please someone else." "I regret doing what I was told and what I was 'supposed to do,'" agrees author Christopher Page.
2. Too much pointless worry
This one is validated by science. "In our research at Cornell University, I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans [what they regretted]," answered professor Karl Pillemer. "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 Cornell 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.'"
3. Focusing too much on acquiring stuff
"The discovery that happiness and fulfillment don't come from hedonistic pursuits--such as the acquisition of things, money, or even people--can come too late in life for many people," writes coach Trevor Emdon. Altucher agrees. "Don't buy things," he advises. Instead, "buy experiences ... An experience is an invitation to meaning." (Note: This one, too, is validated by a whole host of research.)
4. Not taking care of your physical health
Lifestyle choices that seem like they're too small to worry much about apparently do haunt people in their later years. "I wish I had developed habits of regular vigorous exercise," writes founder Stephanie Vardavas, for example.
"Run," advises Altucher. "You build up your blood vessels. More oxygen gets to the brain. You get smarter. Life is better." Even Kurt Vonnegut got onto this bandwagon. "If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it," wrote one respondent, quoting the author.
5. Not traveling enough
This is another regret that emerged from Professor Pillemer's research. "Travel more when you're young rather than wait until the children are grown or you are retired," suggested a New York Times article summing up his team's findings. "Travel is so rewarding that it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on," Pillager commented.
Quora respondents agreed you should pay more attention to your travel bucket list early in life. "By far, for me, the most significant regrets I have now are about lost time," writes IT manager Gary Teal. "I have the real sense that it is getting increasingly likely that I will die without having ever seen Machu Picchu. This shocks and disturbs me."