Health and Wellness

What do 90-somethings regret most? Here's what I learned about how to live a happy, regret-free life

Senior man celebrates his 90th birthday
Urbazon / Getty

My preconceptions about the elderly went out the window four years ago, when a woman in her early-80s came to me seeking pastoral care.

She had been widowed for several years, but her distress didn't come from the loss of her husband. Instead, it was because she had fallen in love with a married man who couldn't return her affections.

As she shared her story with me over some tea and a box of Kleenex, I was bewildered by the realization that people who are far past their 80s still experience the "butterflies-in-the-stomach" kind of love.

An age-old assumption

One of the wonderful and strange features of my job as a minister is that I get to be a confidant and advisor to people from all stages of life, though I primarily interact with those who are double — even triple — my age.

I became a minister in 2015 thinking that I, a Korean-American woman in her mid-30s, wouldn't be able to connect with a congregation of people from a completely different generation and across a variety of ethnic backgrounds. But my interactions with the widow and several others clued me in on how very wrong I was.

Until recently, I generally associated deep yearnings and high ambitions with the energy and idealism of youth. I assumed that as we get older, we become more stoic and sage-like — or maybe even the exact opposite: Disillusioned by life and lacking vitality.

My kernel of new insight launched me into a rapt curiosity about the internal lives of elderly people. I needed to know: What is life like for 90-year-olds? Do they still have vocational ambitions? Do they still crave love, sex and intimacy? What are their greatest fears, hopes and thoughts on aging? What do they regret most in life?

I should note that I'm not a researcher, sociologist or psychologist, but I was determined to find answers. With a pen and paper in hand, I met with and interviewed the oldest people I know, including several congregants and their friends — all between the ages of 90 and 99.

What 90-somethings regret the most

I began each conversation by asking if they had any regrets. Their responses abounded with self-blame and deep sorrow.

They all expressed similar sentiments: "If only I had done this differently." "If I could have seen this coming, maybe I would have done something differently to prevent this."

I was intrigued to learn that their biggest regrets had little to do with their careers, missed opportunities or things they didn't achieve. Rather, their pain came from failures in their relationships.

  1. They regretted not cultivating closer relationships with their children.
  2. They regretted not putting their children on the right path in life.
  3. They regretted not taking risks to be more loving, such as being more open about their feelings for new people or more affectionate with those already in their lives.
  4. They regretted not being better listeners; they wish they had been more empathetic and considerate.
  5. They regretted not spending enough time with the people they loved.

The happiest moments of their lives

I then switched up the mood by asking them about their most joyful memories. Each and every person I spoke to cited a time when their spouses were still alive or their children were younger and living at home.

I found this surprising, as their answers seemed to contradict the "U-bend of life" theory, which suggests that our happiness generally dips in our 30s and reaches a bottom in our mid-40s. Then, at 50, it rebounds and continues to increase years after.

But the people I interviewed said they were the happiest from their late-20s to mid-40s, when they were raising kids and trying to figure out who they were — the exact phase of my life right now.

When I asked one man if he wishes he had accomplished more, he responded, 'No, I wish I had loved more.'

As a young working mother, I frequently fantasize about the pleasures of retirement. But the conversations I had made me consider the possibility that I might one day look back at this hectic period of juggling potty-training, full-time work and little scraps of self-care as the most fulfilling time of my life.

How to live a happy and regret-free life

The lesson, it appears, is that now is the time to be crazy, overextended, in love, curious and explorative.

That might sound unrealistic at first; parenting is hard, marriage can be emotionally taxing, work is crazy and "leisure time" is so limited. But if we take these fleeting moments for granted, we'll regret it later on.

According to my 90-something interviewees, the secret to happy and regret-free life is to savor every second you spend with the people you love.

Put another way, when I asked one man if he wishes he had accomplished more, he responded, "No, I wish I had loved more."

Despite their deepest regrets, the elders I met still laugh like crazy, fall madly in love and fiercely pursue happiness.

These days, when I find myself reverting back to my default pattern of idealizing the past or future, I ask myself, What and who will I miss most during this period, after it's all gone? Then, suddenly, the chaos of my life becomes a wondrous adventure teeming with abundance and love.

However deep my curiosity about the lives of the elderly was, I have to confess that the true driving force behind my research was my intense fear of growing old. I wanted to take a peek into the future and see what my life would be like in a few decades. Maybe, I thought, this knowledge will pacify my anxieties.

And it did. My earlier preconceptions about aging turned out to be completely false. Despite their deepest regrets, the elders I met still laugh like crazy, fall madly in love and fiercely pursue happiness.

Turns out, aging ain't so bad after all.

Lydia Sohn is a writer and minister at St. Mark's United Methodist Church. Her specialties are in contemplative spirituality, progressive theology and helping people live in alignment with their true and authentic selves. She graduated from Yale University Divinity School and currently lives in San Diego, California.

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