The top 5 regrets people have when they are about to die can teach us a lot about how to conduct a happy and fulfilling life.
Bronnie Ware has seen many people die, and she has learned a great deal from the experience. Death can teach us important lessons about how to live a happy life.
Bronnie worked in palliative care for many years, so she spent the last few weeks of many people’s lives before they died. She spoke to the dying, and she realised many of them repeated the same kind of regrets over and over. People may be very different in life, but we seem to share the same regrets when we are about to die. She shared what she learned in her bestselling book The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying: A Life Transformed By The Dearly Departing.
Death gives meaning to life. Without death, time has no meaning, and there is no urgency or motivation to do anything in life. The immediacy of death also serves to open the eyes of the dying and make them think about the life they have conducted.
We can learn a lot about the meaning of life and how to live a good, fulfilling, and happy life from the dying. The good news is that we don’t need to wait to be at the gates of death ourselves to learn from others. We don’t know how much time we have left in our lives, so we might as well apply these learnings today. The sooner we start, the better.
Let’s look at those top five regrets identified by Bronnie, one by one.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This first regret is the most repeated by the dying people Ware spent time with. Most of those people wished they dared to live a life true to themselves.
This reminded me of a quote from the stoic thinker Seneca:
“Man’s ideal state is realised when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy – that he lives in accordance with his own nature.”
One of the main reasons for unhappiness and dissatisfaction comes from living a life you weren’t supposed to live, a life that isn’t yours. This is a self-evident truth, a tautology almost, but how many of us fall into this trap and don’t realise it until it is too late?
“Man’s ideal state is realised when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy – that he lives in accordance with his own nature.”Seneca
This first regret resonates a lot with me, and it is something I have been pondering and thinking about a lot lately. If you want a fulfilling life, the first step is to reflect on who you really are and gain that self-awareness that will be essential for all the rest. Once you know who you are, what your passions are, what you like and dislike, what you are good at, what ticks you and what doesn’t… once you do all that work of introspection and you finally get to know yourself, you will be ready to live the life you were meant to live.
Once you discover your purpose in this life and what gives meaning to your life, the rest becomes much easier. Maybe you won’t know where you are going, but you will know exactly how to get there.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
This regret was common among men, although I suspect it will be increasingly prevalent also among women. I can understand this regret very well. I can’t imagine anybody thinking on their deathbeds, “I wish I had gone to more meetings, spent more time discussing those forecasts with my manager, or met with more clients”. Nobody thinks that, not even the most dependent workaholic.
Work is an integral part of life. It relates to the previous regret, as work often gives us meaning and a purpose. Many people identify themselves and their self-esteem with the work they do. I think that’s dangerous, but I understand where it is coming from.
We spend a lot of our time at work. In addition, we are geared to attain a lot of our self-worth when we feel we achieve things, and work gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that, to achieve things.
This isn’t always the case, though. Many people are condemned to carry out drudgery jobs they don’t enjoy that don’t give them any sense of achievement or satisfaction. If you haven’t inherited a fortune and need to work for a living, it is worthwhile to find a job with a purpose.
If you happen to be a leader, you should spend some time thinking about the purpose of what you are doing and communicating that purpose well to your team. This is the first and most important lesson on engaging and motivating a team.
But I am digressing. Let’s go back to the regrets of the dying.
There is more to life than work; work is just another element. A happy life is all about balance. Work is essential, but so are love, family, friendship, good health, and having a quiet mind. All these things are conducive to a happy life, and the weight we give to each of them will depend on the previous regret: who we really are and what is vital to us. Of course, we all have a different mix of elements, but one single element shouldn’t take full protagonism, even less so if this element is work.
Sadly, work has taken centre stage in too many lives already.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
Oh, our feelings. They are so important, and yet we are so uncomfortable expressing them. At least I am, I admit it. This regret also resonates with me, and it is something I am still working on.
All emotions are important; they all fulfil their function. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t aware of this. We are uncomfortable expressing them to others, especially when they are emotions we see as negative or that make us feel perceived as weak, like sadness and fear.
There is nothing weak about expressing our emotions or showing our vulnerability. Vulnerability is a super-power after all, and the sooner you realise this, the sooner you will be able to use it and reap all its benefits. When we show ourselves as vulnerable to others, we connect better with them, show strength and self-confidence as only overtly vulnerable people can do, and demonstrate we know ourselves well.
When you express your feelings, communication gets easier, and you can better satisfy your needs because they are more explicit and known. When you tell people you love them, are sad, are upset with them or are afraid of doing something, beautiful things start to happen in your life.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
As you can see in the chart below, as Americans get older, they spend less time with friends and family (I haven’t seen other charts for other countries, but I guess they will look a lot like this chart in many Western countries, albeit with some differences). They seem to spend the most time with these two cohorts in their youth, and then the time spent goes down.
The older we get, the more time we spend alone, which makes sense. There are no more co-workers, parents are probably dead, siblings might live far away, children grow up and live their own lives, and the probability of the partner being also dead (or separated) increases as we get older.
The only cohort that could accompany you in your entire life could be your friends, but we spend less and less time with them as soon as we start getting busy forming our families and spending more time with our co-workers. That’s sad. Friends are one of the most important elements in life.
I come from an eminently social culture like the Spanish one, and I suspect this chart would look different regarding the time we spend with friends and family, but still, I don’t spend as much time with my friends as I used to when I was younger. There are also some friends I haven’t seen in many years. I always mean to call them, but for some reason, I never do. I hope one day I won’t regret it.
Family is vital. Your partner is essential in your life. So is having good friends: the people in your life who have forgiven you many times over, those you can tell your most intimate secrets to, the people you can spend hours with in complete silence or rowdy conversation…
Friends are one of the most important ingredients for a happy life, but you need to take care of them, or you end up distancing from them and then regretting it in your old age.
I wish that I had let myself be happier
Many of the people dying in Bronnie Ware’s care didn’t realise until it was too late that happiness was a choice. They spent their lives worrying about what others thought about them and stuck in old harmful habits. They didn’t realise they had a choice.
As I often repeat in this blog, we have agency to build a better future, both for society and ourselves, as we cannot change anything if we don’t change ourselves first. Your life doesn’t have to be the way it is today. Nothing is preordained or destined. We make our life as we go along.
You can develop and build habits that will make you happier and more satisfied with your life. You can get the help of a coach or a mentor to get to know yourself better and achieve the goals that you decide are important in your life. You can do so many things to make yourself happier. Don’t regret not doing them.
I love this quote from Mark Twain. It is pretty relevant in this context:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”Mark Twain
Life is too short to be doing things you will regret
Life is too short to drink bad wine, read bad books and for many other things. It is also too short to spend it doing something you will regret. Life seems to be long, almost eternal, but it isn’t. It will end someday, and when that happens, we will have wished you made the most of it.
The five regrets Bronnie Ware identified among the many dying people she interacted with are a good starting point:
– I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
– I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
– I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
– I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
– I wish that I had let myself be happier
Are they the only things you need to live a happy life? Of course not. Life is more complicated than that! But they are sound guiding principles to start.
None of us is living the perfect life. Life is a journey with its ups and downs, but we can all do things to improve it. What are you going to do to change your life?
We will all die someday, there is no question about it. You can start today and change things, so you don’t have the same five regrets outlined above when you get there, or you can continue doing things as they are. What will you choose to do?