Regrets are common: handling them may not be easy

Senior Hispanic Man At Home Looking At Old Photograph with regret

Image: monkeybusinessimages/

No one gets through life without gathering regrets of some kind. That means by the time we get to retirement, they have the potential to have a huge negative impact on our lives.

Karl Pillemer from Cornell University led a group who interviewed 1500 people over the age of 65 about regrets. In a report on their findings, the following five regrets were among the top 10.

1. Not being careful enough when choosing a life partner

Choosing a life partner is one of the most important decisions anyone makes. Many believed people weren’t careful enough. They felt too many were impulsive, saw the relationship as a ‘last-chance leap’ or a ‘slide into the inevitable’.

One woman said, ‘It’s better not to marry than to marry the wrong person.’

2. Not resolving a family estrangement

Some of the unhappiest older people Pillemer met were those who’d had a breakdown in the family—particularly with a child where there was no longer contact.

‘The kinds of things that seemed worth saying “My way or the highway” when you were 40 and they were 18 usually never seem worth it at 80. Even if the relationship with their other children were great, the one with whom there was this irreparable rift still caused them a lot of remorse and anguish.’

3. Putting off saying how you feel

This regret came mostly from older men who felt they hadn’t told their wife of their love frequently enough. But it could be about anyone—or a group or cause—you feel strongly about.

It’s about demonstrating appreciation.

Pillemer’s warning: ‘You can’t go back and ask forgiveness, apologise, express gratitude, or get information from somebody who has died.’

4. Not travelling enough

He reckons that even if you’ve travelled broadly, ‘You’ll still wish you had taken just one more trip.’ Even globetrotters can get to the end of travel and say, ‘But I never got to Japan.’

And, the problem with putting off travel until retirement is that, if your health fails, it may not happen. ‘If you have a choice between a kitchen remodel and a trip,’ said one woman, ‘I say take the trip.’

5. Spending too much time worrying

There was ‘deep regret’ from worrying about things that never happened that they had no control over.

Pillemer was told, ‘Life is so short. What you will regret is weeks and months of the kind of mindless, self-destructive ruminating worrying that people do. You’re going to wish you had that time back.’

Regrets are personal

Your regrets will be about how you’ve lived your life. You may not have been impacted by these five regrets, but there will be regrets.

Another study found:

  • Inaction (what you didn’t do) regrets last longer than action regrets
  • The greater the loss led to greater inaction regrets
  • Regrets more often focused on non-fixable than fixable situations
  • Women more than men reported love rather than work regrets
  • Overall, regrets focused more on romance than on other life domains.

The problem is that we can be bogged down in the should have; could have; wished I had; and let them ruin our life.

Five questions to tackle regret

  1. What can I do about my regret? Nothing? Admit it. Is there something you can do? What would that look like?
  2. Was it as bad as it could have been? If not, give yourself a break.
  3. Were there any benefits? Be thankful for them.
  4. What’s the big picture of your life? How significant is your regret in comparison?
  5. What have you learned from your regret? Can that help to make a better you?

You and me, we both know that a five-question approach to resolving regrets is too simplistic if they’re causing serious concern. That’s when you’ll need to seek out a friend you trust to talk it through. Or you could ask your doctor what professional help is available.

We all have regrets. That’s a reality. But regrets are about the past. Even if I can’t forget, I need to live in the now.

Bruce Manners is the author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire, and founder of

To receive a free copy of Three Things that Really Matter (in retirement) sign up here for the weekly email.

Category: Emotional Health

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Retire Notes