If you're still beating yourself up for, say, letting an old flame go, you might want to cut yourself some slack. A recent study reveals one secret to staying cheerful well into old age: leaving regret in the past. German researchers found that subjects over 65 who were happiest in their lives did not show remorse over opportunities missed as part of a game of chance, while those who were depressed did. We asked psychiatrist James S. Gordon, MD, author of Unstuck, for advice on dispelling the shoulda, coulda, wouldas.
Q: Regret is such a tough emotion to deal with. Where do we start?
A: Admit what you didn't do, what you lost, or what you got that you no longer want. If you pretend you're not truly upset, you'll never get past it.
Q: But doesn't indulging our sadness just make us feel worse about our choices?
A: Not at all. A decision may seem lamentable five years down the road, but it's likely you made it for reasons that were logical at the time. Tell yourself that your choice made sense to who you were then, and remind yourself how different you are now.
Q: Then what?
A: Even though we know better, we often think we're the only ones who've done something regrettable. So find a caring friend and tell her how bad you feel about what happened. You don't need her to fix you—you don't even need her to say what you did was okay. But you have to recognize that other people have made similar decisions and carried on. Ask your friend if she's had a comparable experience; 99 times out of 100, you'll find she has. Your feelings of regret may not go away entirely, but sharing them should bring some relief.
Q: How can we feel less regret in the future?
A: The next time you have to make a major decision, breathe slowly and deeply before asking yourself, "Does this feel right to me?" Pay attention to your body's response and what you hear in your mind. If you don't immediately feel a strong yes or no, just wait a moment. It's the relaxed, aware mind that is least likely to have regrets and—when they do occur—to let them go most easily.
More Advice on Letting Go
From the May 2013 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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