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How to Live a Life Without Regrets: Lessons From the Dying

 “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”  -Steve Jobs

 

Imagine yourself at the end of your life. You’re lying in bed, surrounded by your loved ones. With only a few short hours left to live, it’s time to look back on your life and reminisce. Are you satisfied with how you lived? Or do you wish you could start over, doing things a little differently this time. Maybe there are only a few key decisions or choices you regret.

One of my biggest fears is getting to this stage, looking back, and regretting how I lived. More importantly, how I didn’t live. I imagine it would be difficult to meet a peaceful end unless you had done all you felt you could over your journey. To do that requires an understanding of what’s truly important.

How can we possibly know that though? We’d first have to be in that position, having our lives laid out before us, allowing the opportunity to assess our situation. Well, we can get close. We can learn from others who have been in that very position; looking back on their lives and determining for themselves what was important and what wasn’t.

What I really want to know, are the true regrets people have at the end of their lives. What do they wish they could go back and do differently? If we are to truly learn how to live, it pays to study those who have already done so. We can learn to avoid their mistakes and their regrets along the way.

 

So what do the dying truly regret?

The best person to answer that question is probably someone who has been around death more than most. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. Through many conversations with those at the end of the road, she came to understand what people truly regret. She put her observations down in a book titled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”.

This is what she found..

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

  1. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

  1. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

There were a few other sources I found to be particularly insightful in studying how to make your journey one free from regret.  The Man Who Studied 1,000 Deaths to Learn How to Live is particularly interesting, have a listen if you get the chance. The list above was not quite complete, I’ve therefore added a few more key regrets that seem to be prevalent..

  • They wished they’d pursued their dreams and aspirations

Instead of settling for what others expected; conforming to societal norms. This ties in to number 1 on the list above.

  • They wished they’d resolved conflicts

Broken relationships that were never restored is something I imagine would be particularly hard to deal with on your death bed.

  • They wish they’d allowed themselves to love

The Grant Study was an ambitious 75 year project conducted by a team (surely a few teams) of Harvard researchers. It is the longest running project of its kind ever conducted. They began the task in 1938, following the lives of 268 students from Harvard. Their aim was to discover the secret to our happiness. Their findings? The clearest determinant of our happiness is from our relationships with others. No real surprises there.

 

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

We need to comprehend and come to terms with the finite nature of our existence. The majority of those on their deathbeds have noted it felt like their lives went by in the blink of an eye. While we may think there is time left to mend a broken relationship or pursue that hobby that truly captivates us, there is often less time than we think.

 

How we can live a life without regrets..

Well as already noted, the only way you can truly determine the regrets you may hold is to learn from those who came before you. We’ve already seen the regrets they have, what they wished they had done differently. It’s up to you to avoid those same mistakes. You can do that with a shift of focus..

Focus more on these 5 things:

  • Following your own path: Don’t follow the path that everyone expects of you. Carve your own.
  • Pursuing your passions: Spend time on whatever interests truly captivate you.
  • Friendships: Stay in touch with old friends. Forgive them.
  • Relationships: Your loved ones are the most important thing in the world. Treat them as such.
  • Taking Risks: This ties all the others together. Take risks to pursue dreams, risk being hurt in order to love, risk embarrassment by expressing yourself. Risks are a necessary part of a fulfilled life. Stepping outside our comfort zone is how we grow, how we reach our potential as human beings.

 

Focus less on these 3:

  • Holding On to Grudges/Resentments: Let go. We’ll all be dead soon anyway.
  • Work: More specifically, work that you don’t enjoy. Many people love their jobs and love what they do for income. This is for those who are ‘stuck’ in positions they hate. As Seneca writes in his essay On the Shortness of Life “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Don’t waste a third of your life doing something you hate.
  • Caring What Others Think: Read the quote at the beginning of this post. Are you going to care when you’re dead? You probably won’t even care in a few days… Just do it.

 

In Greek mythology, the mortality of humans made the gods envious. The immortal gods experienced life as an infinite pattern of repetition, gazing out upon an endless sea of experiences already lived. Humans are different, that is our blessing. Each moment passes us but only once, every day threatening to be our last. We experience love all the more intensely in the knowledge that even this most vivid of human feelings, will eventually fade. Life is more precious because we are bound by the limits of time. Life is all the more beautiful because it is fleeting. One day, it will be lost. Embrace it.

 

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