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How to avoid life's biggest regrets, enjoy the best years: Advice from 90-year-olds

A minister who interviewed her oldest congregants was surprised by some of their answers.
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/ Source: TODAY

What will you regret most at the end of a long life? Like many people, the Rev. Lydia Sohn was curious so she posed a simple question to a man in his 90s.

“Do you wish you had accomplished more?” she asked.

“No, I wished I loved more,” he responded.

The answer was just one of the poignant, beautiful and haunting responses Sohn received when she interviewed a handful of her oldest congregants and their friends at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Arcadia, California.

She collected their answers for an essay on how to live a happier, more regret-free life. Sohn, who is now a minister at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in San Diego, emphasized she’s not a researcher, psychologist or sociologist, but simply wanted a more intentional conversation with her elders, who ranged in age from 90 to 96.

“It was a very personal experience,” Sohn, 34, told TODAY. “I think I was also motivated by fear of getting older… I wanted to look into my future to see what my life would be like in several decades.”

What they’d do differently:

The biggest regrets of the 90-somethings Sohn interviewed had very little to do with their careers, work or what they hadn’t achieved. Instead, the most pain came from failures in their relationships, particularly with their children.

They deeply regretted not having closer ties to their kids, seeing that their kids didn’t get along with each other as adults or feeling that they didn’t put them on the right path in life.

“It was a little bit of blame, a little bit of thinking, ‘If only I had done something differently. If I could have seen this coming, maybe I could have done something differently to prevent this,’” Sohn said. “It was the thing that brought them the most sadness.”

They also wished they had taken more risks to be more loving — both in being more open about their feelings for new people and being more affectionate with those already in their lives. They wished they’d listened better, had been more empathetic and more considerate, and spent more time with people they loved, she noted.

“It’s quite illuminating that when you get to that age, the things you long for the most, the things that make you happiest are those close relationships with family and friends,” Sohn said.

The happiest years of their lives:

The elders’ answers here were a surprise to Sohn, who had read about the “U-bend” theory of happiness. The research found people’s psychological well-being generally dipped in their 30s, reached a bottom in their mid-40s, and then rebounded after 50.

But the 90-somethings she interviewed contradicted those findings. They reported being the happiest from their late 20s to their mid-40s, when their children were still at home, their spouses were alive and the family lived together.

Sohn, who is in the middle of that whirlwind time right now — she’s married with a small child, has a full-time job, and she and her husband would like to have another baby — was a bit incredulous.

“These are definitely the most stressful times in my life… Weren’t those the most stressful years [for you]?” she asked the elders. Yes, they told her: “It’s stressful and chaotic, but so wonderful and fulfilling.”

The lesson here seems to be: Enjoy the chaos of right now, Sohn said. Yes, babies are fussy, children take over your life, teens are moody, the commute is taxing, the days are hectic, work is crazy and free time seems to be non-existent — but savor every minute. People measure happiness differently when they assess themselves in the moment than when they think about life retrospectively, Sohn said.

She uses the elders’ perspective as a reminder to appreciate everything she has now.

“One thing I’ve learned to ask myself is: What will I miss about this time of my life when it’s all gone? Then all of a sudden, things become so much more wonderful,” she said.

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