The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 6, 2013

Worry proves a barrier to happiness

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — What do you regret?

Everybody regrets something. As Frank Sinatra sang in the classic “My Way,” “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.”

If you can get away with only a few regrets, you are lucky.

In every life there are decisions made, paths taken and words spoken, that we wish we could somehow take back.

Some are superficial, like the long sideburns, plaid pants and platform shoes many of us sported during the 1970s. Most, however, are not, like relationships that have gone wrong, hurtful words that can never be withdrawn or forgotten.

Time is linear. We proceed from one day to the next much as we walk down a long stretch of sidewalk, one step at a time. The difference being, if you walk three blocks, then remember you neglected to stop by the dry cleaners a couple of blocks back, you can turn around and retrace your steps.

Presently, there is no such thing in time travel outside the realm of science fiction. Brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says it is theoretically possible to move through time, at least into the future, but you would have to do so in a vehicle that traveled at or near the speed of light, which no known mode of transportation will even approach today.

So there’s no turning back on our journey through life.

Yesterday’s mistakes cannot be erased. All we can do is hope to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Which brings us back to the question, what do you regret?

That question was posed to a group of more than 1,200 older people taking part in Cornell University’s Legacy Project.

The seniors were asked to reflect on their lives and offer their take on everything from love and marriage, raising children and how to be happy, to work and careers, money and aging well.

One area the seniors addressed was avoiding regrets. Karl Pillemer, Cornell professor of human development, writes that the respondents said their biggest regret was worrying too much.

They say the time spent worrying is precious time wasted in a completely fruitless enterprise.

They called worry a barrier standing between them and happiness. To be happier, they advised, don’t worry.

John Alonzo, 83, took part in the Cornell Legacy Project. The former construction worker says he dealt with financial woes throughout his lifetime, but he has this take on worry:

“Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.”

James Huang, 87, another participant, put it this way: “My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.”

Betty, 76, said during her working career a message went out to employees that her employer would be conducting layoffs within three months.

“I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well — I wish I had those three months back.”

Pillemer then offers three tips for living a worry-free life.

The first is to focus on the short term rather than the long term. Take life one day at a time, or perhaps one hour at a time.

Basketball coaches talk about dividing the game up into four-minute bites — play to win the next four minutes, then the four minutes after that, and so on. Live in the moment.

Second is, prepare instead of worrying. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s math test, study tonight so you’ll be ready. Don’t worry about running out of money, formulate a solid financial plan. Control everything you can and don’t concern yourself with the things you can’t.

Finally, Pillemer says acceptance is an antidote to worry. Adopt the philosophy that, as the French say, “C’est la vie,” such is life. Or, in simpler and cruder terms, excrement happens.

Not that it’s easy, mind you. Worry is an old, trusted companion. Worry is comfortable. Worrying makes us feel like we’re doing something about a problem, even if we’re not.

The old Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” seems impossibly simplistic, but not worrying seems to make us inherently happier, so perhaps it’s not far off.

It works in terms of stress. A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology finds that people who believe they are stressed have a 27 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who don’t.

So don’t worry, and especially don’t worry about being stressed. And don’t worry if you do find yourself worrying, just don’t worry too much. And if you regret all the time you spent worrying, don’t worry about that, either.

And if all that somehow makes sense to you, be very worried.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at