The Wall Street Journal
- JOURNAL REPORTS
- May 21, 2013, 10:24 a.m. ET
The Experts: The Best Way to Deal With Regrets Later in Life
What's the best way to deal with regret so it doesn't become crippling? The Wall Street Journal put this question to The Experts, an exclusive group of industry, academic and other thought leaders who engage in in-depth online discussions of topics from the print Report. This question relates to a recent article that discussed ways to get past regrets later in life and formed the basis of a discussion in The Experts stream on Monday, May 20, 2013...
The Experts will discuss topics raised in this month's Encore Report and other Wall Street Journal Reports. Find the retirement Experts stream, recent set of interactive videos and other exciting online content at WSJ.com/Encore.
Also be sure watch three thought leaders—Encore.org's Marc Freedman; Hamilton Beazley, author of "No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind"; and Nancy Newall of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba—as they discuss ways to deal successfully with life's regrets in a live video chat that aired Monday, May 20.
Morgan Fairchild: A Recipe for Misery: Try Changing the Past
All of us have regrets in life, but it's how we handle them that is important. Sometimes people look back with rose-colored glasses, instead of looking realistically at what the facts were at the time. Perhaps your choices were the best you could do at the time.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." That sums up the way we should lead our lives, but if we didn't always make the wise choice or have the courage to do what we should have, that doesn't mean we can't move forward with the rest of our lives in that manner. You cannot change the past. You can accept it and vow to make the future your chance to be the best person you can be. Dwelling on past mistakes will not fix them and will only make you miserable.
Morgan Fairchild (@morgfair <https://twitter.com/morgfair> ) is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actress and activist supporting AIDS research, women's rights and the environment.
Pat Sajak: Take a Cue from My Aunt Betty
It's difficult to imagine a greater waste of time than wallowing in regret. It's done. It's over. No mulligans in life. No do-overs. Perhaps it's helpful to remember that changing one thing changes everything. Even if you could wave a magic wand and alter a past event, the result could leave you wishing you had never found that wand. Whatever you'd like to have done differently, keep in mind the wise words of my Aunt Betty: "It could always be worse." It should come as no surprise that Aunt Betty was almost never invited to family events.
Pat Sajak is the host of the television game show "Wheel of Fortune."
Bud Hebeler: Do Something Good Today
With some people, their biggest regret late in life is the fact that they didn't save enough. With others, it's failure to keep in physical shape or have lost a spouse. But these people learn to live with their situations. It's far more difficult to cope with the fact that many feel they did not use their past years to help other people, perhaps now-deceased parents or more often children or grandchildren. It could have been financial help, or simply spending time with them, or leaving a history of their past experiences that might have been interesting or a learning experience. What's really important is to look ahead with enthusiasm and think about the future, not the past. One way to cope with the perception of past failings is to do something good today. There are so many ways one can volunteer to help others that anyone should be able to find something to do that gives them satisfaction and comfort.
Henry "Bud" Hebeler was president of the aerospace division of Boeing Co. He has served on the board of MIT's Sloan School and currently focuses on the dissemination of free, sound financial planning on www.analyzenow.com.
Molly Mettler: Focus on the Positives
Pangs of regret are almost inevitable. Here are two ways I deal with them. These may work for you, too. Or not.
Reframe. Focus on what is, rather than what isn't.
One gloriously sunny Saturday not long ago, I had the pleasure of watching a spirited soccer game played by 8-year-old girls. In the course of that game, I kept a mental tally of the regretful thoughts that skittered through my consciousness. "I wish there had been youth soccer when I was a kid…I coulda been a contender." "I'll never run like that again." "I should have paid more attention to keeping flexible." "I wish I brought a chair….This ground's hard and my butt's cold."
As a serial regretter, I could have kept this up all afternoon. However, I reframed my thinking. I thought instead about what was wonderful about the day, and this brought clear and present joys into focus. It was a beautiful day and there wasn't anything I had to do but to enjoy it and my speedy, wild-haired, whooping granddaughter.
Make amends. Offer up apologies if you've hurt someone or let someone down, especially yourself. Say you're sorry. Mean it. Move on. Repeat as needed.
Molly Mettler (@mollykmettler <https://twitter.com/mollykmettler> ) is senior vice president of mission at Healthwise Inc., a nonprofit founded in 1975 with a mission to help people make better health decisions. She also serves as a fellow with the Center for Advancing Health and has written four books on health care, including "Healthwise for Life."
Bill Bengen: Forget the Past. Set Bold Goals for the Future.
Remind yourself that there is nothing you can do about the past. Regret is a ghost, wasted energy and unfulfilling. You can, however, take action now to prevent future regrets. Set bold goals during retirement and work steadily to achieve them. Failure at attaining your goals fully is no cause for regret (we all run out of time, sooner or later); not setting any goals at all is entirely regrettable.
Bill Bengen is the president of Bengen Financial Services. He originated the 4% rule for retirement withdrawals.
Wade Pfau: Trying and Failing Is Better Than Not Trying at All
One of the best ideas I have seen is to try to minimize the potential for regret by finding a happy compromise. For instance, Nobel laureate Harry Markowitz says that he minimizes the risk with his investments by choosing a balanced 50/50 portfolio of stocks and bonds. If stocks go up, he regrets not having his entire portfolio invested in stocks, and if stocks go down, he regrets having any stocks at all. Before knowing whether stocks are going to go up or down, he minimizes the potential for regret by balancing this regret in both directions. At another level as well, it seems that the regret associated with trying something and failing is less than the regret associated with not having tried anything at all.
Wade D. Pfau (@WadePfau <https://twitter.com/WadePfau> ) is a professor of retirement income in the financial and retirement planning Ph.D. program at The American College. He blogs on retirement research and maintains the Retirement Researche.
Marc Freedman: Don't Just Learn From Your Regrets. Act on Them, Too.
There's no escaping midlife regret, but we can avoid becoming trapped by these emotions. If fact, we can even learn from the lessons these uncomfortable emotions are sometimes trying to teach us. Buried in the regrets of the middle years are often essential truths about what matters most, insights that may have eluded us in our youths but that are now more recognizable with the benefit of time and perspective.
What's more, in the context of longer lives, we can do more than harvest these lessons. We can act on them. We are not condemned to be prisoners of the past for the simple reason that today, at midlife and beyond, we still have a future. Most individuals in their 50s and 60s can reasonably expected two or three decades of life and health stretching out in front of them—a second chance to live out lives informed by our experience and aligned with our priorities. (One can argue that in the past wisdom was wasted on the old—just as we figured out what matters, we were too worn out personally or rejected by society to do much with these realizations.)
For a case study in the positive power of regret consider the case of Tom Cox. A lawyer in Portland, Maine, Mr. Cox spent the bulk of his career working for financial institutions, in the process becoming a leading expert on the foreclosure process. He even wrote "the book" on how to conduct foreclosures in Maine. But over time the direction of his career took a steady toll on his soul. When the mortgage crisis first hit, Mr. Cox saw many people—individuals he knew on a first-name basis—thrust out of their homes, their lives ruined. He became severely depressed by what was unfolding in front of him, and his role in it. Mr. Cox's family unraveled. He quit the law, convinced that he "was done."
Consumed by regret, Mr. Cox even started working as a carpenter, building houses while he was trying to rebuild his life. After a while he decided that he'd try to salvage his legal training and expertise, using them in service of new priorities. He approached a local legal-services agency and began helping individuals of modest means hang on to their homes.
Defending a woman named Nicolle Bradbury, Cox uncovered the "robo-signing" scandal, conducting depositions that contributed to a $25 billion settlement and exposed some of the most egregious practices of the mortgage industry. Today Mr. Cox is involved in training hundreds of lawyers around the country to better defend victims of illegal mortgage practices.
For Tom Cox, regret was an essential part of the road to renewal—the spearhead for his most important contributions as a lawyer. (For more, here's a video of Tom Cox talking about his experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNUmH6xxuds)
Marc Freedman is CEO and founder of Encore.org <http://www.encore.org/> . Encore.org is a nonprofit organization working to promote encore careers—second acts for the greater good.