What Do 90-Somethings Regret Most?
August 10, 2018 4:16 AM   Subscribe

Having just visited my 95-year old grandparents, and having been beaten in chess, I can vouch that there is still some killer instinct!

The article doesn't really contradict the theory of the 'U' curve of life happiness though. Even if many older people recall being happy when the kids were young, that might reflect their current unstressed state of mind more than being an accurate memory of how they felt on average back then. Memory is selective too. Sometime I can confuse my overall satisfaction with an accomplishment with how I felt while in the struggle--I'm happy it turned out well and that colors my memory of how it felt in the trenches.
posted by TreeRooster at 5:02 AM on August 10, 2018 [18 favorites]

On the one hand, it's good that she's talking to the seniors in her congregation, rather than assuming they fit the models of aging she's aware of. On the other hand, I'm thinking that a minister in a mainline denomination who provides pastoral counseling should not be "bewildered by the realization that even into their 80s, people still fall for one another...". Seems like that basic info would have been covered during her education.
posted by she's not there at 5:04 AM on August 10, 2018 [8 favorites]


However, the biggest impact they left on me was not reprioritization but being okay with aging.

I am NOT 'ok' with aging, never will be. Not ok with global warming, war, shootings, corrupt government, bad stuff, but, grrrgahh hate just hate the word 'acceptance', and do not accept any of that but at some point in most folks life there's an awareness in differing personal ways that even though the reality of something sucks, real is real. And the good stuff is all mixed in too! The blog post is perhaps that authors working through that in her personal way.
posted by sammyo at 5:45 AM on August 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

Seems like that basic info would have been covered during her education.

I understood it as a much more basic, emotional surprise. I have a similar memory from my childhood – my twice-maternal great-grandmother was around until my early twenties. The last few years of her life were spent in a care home, where she was pretty happy. I was in my late teens by then. I will always, always remember how doe-eyed and pink-cheeked the hetero, nearing-a-century-old men got around my great-grandma and how much she enjoyed having them tied around her finger. It was genuine, sheer flirtatious joy. Just like I had experienced at the age I was then. I was so darn happy to see that I could still hope to flip my fluffy snow-white hair with one hand, my other hand on my walker, while in my mid-nineties and have love interests fall over themselves. (My great-grandma had the loveliest wavy snow-white hair, from my earliest memories. All my life, I've unfailingly told people who ask about my feelings re: aging that I am looking forward to seeing how my hair turns out because I hope it will be as beautifully white as my great-grandma's was.)

I've always heard this too:
The radical relationship-based orientation of all my subjects caught me by surprise. As someone entering the height of my career, I expend much more energy on work than on relationships. And when I imagine my future, I envision what I will have accomplished rather than the quality of my interactions with those who are most important to me. These 90-something-year-olds emphasize the opposite when they look back on their lives. Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses, and friends. Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”
posted by fraula at 5:52 AM on August 10, 2018 [31 favorites]

I'm okay with aging. It isn't a disease, it's the culmination of life.

Maybe it's in part because of Trump and how he has, in every way, exposed the ugliness of shallowness, I've come to realize that age is beauty.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:53 AM on August 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

My biggest regret is that the graphic designer for this article chose a typeface for the callouts that turns every lowercase "t" into what appears to be a bit of toenail clipping on my screen.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:56 AM on August 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

It's been shown time and again that in memory, we de-emphasize the negative, the tedious, the boring, unless it's traumatic. So it definitely stands to reason that the U-curve (which measures current stress levels) doesn't line up with memory. But it doesn't mean you should subject yourself to a stressful or boring life just because your memories later will rehabilitate that perspective.

I'm really surprised we venerate the elderly for anything but their experience anymore. We've seen that they can be as stupid, petty, and vindictive as anyone else, why assume they can't also have flighty "teenager" feelings as we know we continue to do? We grow old, not inhuman!
posted by explosion at 6:25 AM on August 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

"He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”

I've come across a few articles where people list this as one of their top regrets. Whats active steps one can take to 'learn' to cultivate a more loving nature?

It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?
posted by LansLeFleur at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

This article reminds me of a time I was with a group of Christian men of varying ages, and one of the guys in his early twenties started talking about his struggled with lust. He said that he was looking forward to the a time when he would be so old that he wouldn't experience such intense sexual urges. A man in his mid-80s guffawed so hard he had to stop and adjust his false teeth. He wiped laughter tears away from his eyes and blurted out "me, too!"
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:38 AM on August 10, 2018 [76 favorites]

I'm OK with aging, even as I'm at the age of 46 and peak middle-age-misery. The older I get, the more at ease I am in my own skin and I hope that continues.

They still laugh like crazy, fall in love like mad and pursue happiness fiercely.
Words to live by.
posted by arcticseal at 6:46 AM on August 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago. I'm a cranky old bastard, who is trying to suffer fools, perhaps not gladly but resignedly. I have taken to heart the wisdom of loving more and have learned to love my family despite our deep differences. I love my friends with my full heart and will be there for them whenever and with whatever they need. Lust has been one of the ongoing struggles of my life, and I've decided that I can experience the joy of finding many (oh so many) people attractive and not do anything about it at the time (let's not go further down the road of alone time, k?) I'm surprised to have lived this long (maybe not long comparatively, but I try not to compare) and now I do things that I've missed and have always wanted to do. I do most of this because I will die one day and while I have many, many regrets, I want fewer. So, jobs are jobs, unless you're the CEO or the president or something, chances are you're some kind of wage slave drudge like me. Take the vacation time offered. Be foolish. Do fun adventurous things. Someone doesn't like your choices, well who the fuck cares, because you're going to die, and in the end, you should please yourself. Eat the cake first.
posted by evilDoug at 7:28 AM on August 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

> LansLeFleur:
"It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?"

Start by binging Steven Universe, and act accordingly.
posted by signal at 7:28 AM on August 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

re: " to love more " My mom did lovingkindness meditation. I never did and am not sure if it is one word or two.
posted by puddledork at 7:49 AM on August 10, 2018

I had a great aunt who lived to be 98. Was born in 1910. I asked her what the greatest invention of her lifetime was fully expecting her to say either the airplane, space travel, or something along those lines. Nope. Her response was the toaster oven. Freed up people, mostly women, from the kitchen.

That is the definition of happiness. The toaster oven. Let me out of the kitchen and live a little. The kids can have a TV dinner.
posted by AugustWest at 7:52 AM on August 10, 2018 [17 favorites]

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

Both my grandfathers and my father-in-law were left useless by their retirements. As a teen I remember my grandfather being happiest when he was asked to consult for a track that was being built for the high school (he was a former architect). I just got back from a 'vacation' of throwing away umpteen boxes of Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA violations that my father-in-law kept 'just in case they called him back to work' for the state of California. My wife had been trying to get him to throw them away for a decade.

My own dad is still working at 67 - they don't really need the money. It's just what he wants to do. He has something like 15 grandchildren. If they wanted to spend endless time 'loving' them, they certainly could. My other grandfather was a sub-par worker for the electric company - still a linesman when he retired, never even a manager. He still revered his job, not us grandkids.

I'm just saying, anecdotally, plenty of people of people may say they wish they had loved more -but they had that opportunity and didn't take it, and 'loving' wasn't what made them happy.

My mother-in-law is 77 or so and she constantly says she wants to love her grandchildren more and acts like it and is angry she's being hobbled by age from doing it. She's the outlier.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:23 AM on August 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Re: recollections of happiness, there's a bit in Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he outlines experiments to try and determine how people remember experiences vs. how they experience them. Perhaps unsurprisingly now (though not at the time), there's major differences between the two.

One example was a painful colonoscopy procedure- people were asked every few minutes to rate their pain, then weeks later asked to rate the whole experience. What he found was that the duration of the procedure played no part at all in people's recollections of how bad it was. The best model for predicting how someone would remember it was the average of the peak pain level, and the pain felt at the end of the procedure.

I always struggle with prioritizing between the two "selves" (experiential vs. remembering), in full knowledge that I do get to be both of them! The article mentions child raising: as someone thinking a lot about this right now, how do you weigh the continuously difficult experience of 20 years of child raising, against the fact that you won't remember it as being so bad, and may in fact remember it as rewarding, despite the lived experience? Who is more important, the experiencing or remembering self? It spins me in loops...
posted by Jobst at 8:25 AM on August 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

It's probably a great kindness of our own brains that suffering softens in our memories. Especially for those who can expect the painful experience to continue or recur. The human brain's capacity to resign itself to what it must endure seems essential--if also potentially quite harmful.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on August 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

What with 2018 and all, I felt a deep sympathy with Koku Istambulova, a Chechen lady who is claimed to be 129 years old, and told reporters, "Long life is not at all God's gift for me -- but a punishment . . . Looking back at my unhappy life, I wish I had died when I was young." Contrast this with Jeanne Calment of France, who died at 122, and who was by all accounts merry and witty until the end. There's got to be a lot of cultural difference there.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:35 AM on August 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?

As a human being, your extant capacity for love is likely vastly, hugely larger and deeper than you've ever imagined or felt--right now, no change or improvement needed. My experience has been that, because meta-cognition (our consciousness, the experience of yourself subjectively, thinking about thinking) is so vivid, we most often are distracted or pre-occupied by all of the thoughts we have, and then our feelings of course kick up even more thoughts, and so on, that there's a lot of stuff going on in each of our heads.

The challenge, the thing to actually learn, is to see through or around that storm of thinking, and to be able to experience your feeling (or intuitive) self more clearly, to learn to surf the churning sea of thoughts and thoughts-about-thoughts, so that your mind is calm enough to allow others in, to allow your thoughts to be about other people whom you care about, or things you want to do, or anything other than me and myself. I find that's the most persistent barrier that keeps people from living in a place of compassion and wonder (which we all should, every day--it's the trippiest thing ever, that all of this is here and that we're here to experience it).

There are many methods one can use learn new habits of thinking and feeling, that will more consistently and freely connect you with (and allow you to experience) what is called a state of loving-kindness, but in my experience the easiest, most adaptable, and consistently rewarding approach is a daily practice of mindfulness meditation (called a 'practice' because you do it every day, and you never really get it 'right'; the point is the daily doing of it and its effects). Mindfulness meditation has been one of the most important and liberating aspects of self-care I've found, have practiced it off and on over 20 years now, and it has been a cornerstone* for most of my spiritual and emotional learning.

My favorite (very short) book to explain mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation (which can mean a 2-minute session, to be clear--there is no huge time commitment here) is Still the Mind, by Alan Watts.

We all know how to love, deeply and likely endlessly. I've found that the challenge is making space in my mind, thoughts and attention to be able to consistently notice, feel and experience that capacity, rather than all of the bullshit that the world tries to shove into my thoughts instead.

* - I also think that Socrates was essentially right: nearly all of the answers we need to questions like this (i.e., wisdom) are either already inside of us, or are evident to us if we can learn to be quiet in our minds and pay attention to the world and people around us more openly--which is surprisingly hard in an age when we are all conditioned by mass media to be thinking about ourselves all the time. (For goodness' sake, think how often every single one of us disregards the essential pedagogical point of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths: expectation/desire self-creates much of the suffering we each experience; you can learn to stop doing that to yourself.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:35 AM on August 10, 2018 [20 favorites]

Also, on non-preview: Who is more important, the experiencing or remembering self?

For me, the most important self is the self you're experiencing right now. That's the only 'you' who is actually real, alive in this moment. Past-you is a memory and future-you is imagination, but now-you is here right now, experiencing itself and the universe, and it's the only concrete reality you can be assured of. Past-you is past, no more, dead and gone, only alive in memory, so you owe it no fealty; future-you will have their own energy to handle things, plus the experience and learning that present-you is providing, so they can take care of themselves. But now-you? Now-you needs your attention, care and concern, because that's the you who is happening right now, who is being currently affected by everything, and in fact is the only self that can be actively cared for anyway.

Treat the present moment as sacred, pay attention to it, and honor yourself right now as best you can. Let memories take care of themselves, their provenance now is for a self that does not yet exist.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:44 AM on August 10, 2018 [19 favorites]

she wasn’t afraid of death but of dying. ... Would she be restricted to a hospital bed, just a mess of tubes and needles? Would she still recognize family and friends? Would she be in constant pain? Being old didn’t bother her until it affected the quality of her life in an incredibly detrimental way.

That's something I think about a lot. I don't care when I go, as long as it doesn't involve a protracted debilitation at the end.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I've always been annoyed by the cliche that "nobody on their deathbed looks back and wishes they'd spent more time at the office." Bullshit. I know people in their 30s who look back and wish they'd worked harder. I can't imagine people on their deathbed are immune to this.
posted by panama joe at 8:53 AM on August 10, 2018 [16 favorites]

It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?

To build on what LooseFilter said, meditation is a great tool. There is actually a family of traditional meditation techniques built around loving-kindness (a rough translation of the Pali term metta). I strongly recommend Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. It's a very practical, accessible book and it avoid the New Age-y frou-frou attitudes that a lot of people find offputting about the topic. The practices she suggests are really powerful.
posted by philosophygeek at 9:05 AM on August 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?

posted by LansLeFleur

Observe and appreciate. Look at something - anything - be curious about it and wonder about it and spot positive things about it.

For example, you are in a public place and people are walking past, not a packed throng but with many gaps in the crowd. Focus on each person for a moment, and think of something positive about their appearance and then go on to the next person: He looks good in that shade of green, she has good posture, what a nice profile, so voluptuous, strong looking legs, purpose full stride, lovely choice in that light-weight graceful shirt, sensible full sun coverage in that shirt, adorably knobby knees.... etc.

Do the same in your garden: look at each plant the same way. Do the same in your kitchen: appreciate the fact that you own a toaster

Once you are practiced at this start doing it with the people you know and already have some feeling for. Consider the things that this person is up against that are tough for them and admire them for how they are standing up against those things, one by one.

Take the long view. Your kid may be driving you bonkers, but they are your heir and in the long run everything you are doing will only matter in terms of how it affects them, because you will be dead and you will be okay, nothing will hurt, annoy or distress you any more. This doesn't mean subsume your feelings and sacrifice yourself for them, because you are here now and your feelings are valid, but lay the ground work for next week, or next year or next decade when you speak to them, do things for them, demand things from them.

Take the long, long view. Your family is important yeah, but in one-hundred and fifty years your DNA will be well diluted into great grand nieces and nephews and your own direct line may not exist. But some part of your DNA will exist, some quirks in the way you smile, or tricks of speech, or a trace of your body odor being similar to that of someone who lives one hundred and fifty years from now. And maybe your DNA will not exist in human beings at all, but only in the other species with which you share your world. Look at a sapling, newly grown, maybe four years old, leggy, and thrusting to get taller than the bushes where it took hidden root, which is why it didn't get mowed and now it is getting so tall above them, surviving. That tree could be here still in one-hundred and fifty years. That tree could be a giant with a wide green canopy. Lay the ground work for next century and the century after.

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:21 AM on August 10, 2018 [22 favorites]

"It's easy to say I want to love more, but what tangible actions can be taken to increase ones capacity for love?"
Start with empathy, and the golden rule (which is not the same as the golden mean). You should be able to move forward from that point with very little more direction.
posted by evilDoug at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2018

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards" Soren Kierkegaard
posted by night_train at 10:41 AM on August 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

They only seem to interview inspirational old people. My great-grandmother lived to over 100 driven by a desire to outlive her enemies (basically everyone) and see their children and grandchildren fail.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:55 AM on August 10, 2018 [15 favorites]

As others have said upthread, it's unsurprising that in old age, people rehabilitate their memories.
But another thing that is unsurprising is that a minister (NOT a psychologist) would leverage chicken soup for the soul-style inspirational narrative in an attempt to "well-actually" research that contradicts mainstream religious insistence on traditional cis-het procreative nuclear family structures.
"Gee whiz, I went looking for something that would undermine the basic economic and cultural status quo that keeps me in power, and wouldn't you know it? Imagine my surprise when I discovered a heartwarming story that actually reinforced those structures -- which I will now relate to you! Remember to check out the next article on the roll, where your boss will reminisce about how he made his fortune by working hard, not complaining, and saving his pennies."
posted by Krawczak at 11:25 AM on August 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm sure my perspective as a childfree/childless person impacts this, but I find it.... oddly sad that to a person, these people pointed towards the years their kids lived at home as their happiest, because... that's only 20 years of your life. Hey, maybe more now that all the millennials have to move in with their parents. Anyway, it makes me sad to think that most parents really are thinking their happiest years are behind them when their kids leave home and most people are only 40-50 when that happens. Ouch.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:51 AM on August 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Very much in the “Time is a fire in which we burn” camp when it comes to aging, myself.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:18 PM on August 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bullshit. I know people in their 30s who look back and wish they'd worked harder. I can't imagine people on their deathbed are immune to this.

Were they on their deathbed in their 30s? It's a whole different inquiry then. I would definitely have been extremely mad that I didn't finish a novel if I had died a few years ago.

I am trying to "love more," but people are either bastards or they have plenty of people to love them and don't need me. Animals are better, but I'm having logistical trouble with getting a new one. Upon reflection, perhaps I need to work harder on this matter.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:21 PM on August 10, 2018

it makes me sad to think that most parents really are thinking their happiest years are behind them when their kids leave home

This is of course anecdata... While I didn't and don't regret being a parent, and there were many happy things going on during that time, my happiness absolutely didn't end once my child was an adult and out on their own.

Enjoying parenthood is fine, but I agree it's a bit sad to consider it the major or only goal of one's life experience/happiness.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:33 PM on August 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Speaking as the mother of 2 20-somethings, I'm thinking that referring to the years when your kids are young as "the happiest" might be a knee-jerk response that wouldn't hold up to close examination. Kids arc through your life like comets (words borrowed from a forgotten source). I have such fond memories of my kids' childhoods—sometimes literally ache to hold those memory-babies and toddlers, talk again with those teenagers. I can see how that intense nostalgia could give memories of those years an artificially rosy glow.

Perhaps I'm an outlier (or just a bad mother), but it seems that some important factors that I suspect most people consider essential for day-to-day happiness, e.g. some control over one's time, adequate sleep, minimal stress, financial stability/security, meaningful interaction with other adults, are in short supply during the child-rearing years.
posted by she's not there at 12:40 PM on August 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

The "love more" thing is pretty vague and pat.

I read that less literally, and more as a short-hand expression of a general sense that they wished they'd spent more time experiencing feelings of well-being and happiness most strongly associated with loving and being loved. I think similar banal expressions like "laugh, love, live" or "carpe diem" etc. are really just kind of sloganized short-hand for more important wisdom, as others have mentioned.

It's just that mindfulness, that skill of really attuning to the present moment and being grateful for, and relishing, eating that ice cream sandwich in a hammock, every time that you do it, doesn't happen on its own. That's a learned skill, and far too many of us are only rudimentarily competent with it.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:57 PM on August 10, 2018

Were they on their deathbed in their 30s? It's a whole different inquiry then. I would definitely have been extremely mad that I didn't finish a novel if I had died a few years ago.

If you spent your life doing jobs you hated because you never worked hard to advance yourself... that's a lot of time you spent doing something you hated. I could see someone of any age regretting that.
posted by panama joe at 2:14 PM on August 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I asked her what the greatest invention of her lifetime was fully expecting her to say either the airplane, space travel, or something along those lines. Nope. Her response was the toaster oven.

I knew a pioneering woman scientist and she once gave a talk on her career. She was asked about hardships she had experienced, and we expected her to talk about sexism. Instead she talked about how happy she was she didn't have to type using carbon paper any more.
posted by acrasis at 2:52 PM on August 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Being the parent of small kids is fun. It's a little sad when they grow up. This shouldn't be surprising to consider.

However, as adults, parents can grow and move on to other things.

But taking a look at photos from five years ago, which seems like such a very short time ago, and to consider all the changes, does result in a sense of loss.

I also don't think there is anything wrong with parents who believe that parenting is the high point of their lives. While it is not the only way to experience being a human, being a parent is hard and tough but also awesome.

In many ways it's the most important job, the most important form of self-expression. For some people.
posted by JamesBay at 3:19 PM on August 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Interesting to me that people here are both asking “how to love more”, and also questioning how others can consider the child-raising years to be the happiest. I mean, that’s what you do during the child raising years - you love them. Endlessly, without reserve, unconditionally, harder than you’ll ever love anyone else. The child raised years are the peak loving years.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:07 PM on August 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

*raising. Sigh.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:15 AM on August 11, 2018

It seems like she didn't interview any never-partnered, child-free people... They exist. I wonder how they would fit into the pattern described.

"Loved more"... Hmm. I think there are many ways to love, even for folks who are kind of insular in their ways and don't/can't partner or have kids. Intentional community, companion to older/sick folks, even dedication to a social movement or a cause.. And so much of it can be done part time.

Also, seconding she's not there. Memory is a tricky thing.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:23 PM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

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