Life has its ups and downs, hits and misses, and ebbs and flows. We all know this. But what we often lack is perspective and priorities, and we lose sight of the most fundamental fact of all: life — or at least this incarnation of life if your spiritual beliefs lean in that direction — is astonishingly short.
Indeed, it really doesn’t matter if we’re fortunate enough to live into our 90s — or maybe crack the century mark — or if we shuffle off this mortal coil much earlier. Countless people have come before us, and provided that we don’t destroy the planet anytime soon (we’ll save that dire discussion for another article), countless people will come after we’re gone.
But before we see our last sunset, eat our last ice cream cone, have our last kiss, or hear our last joke (hopefully not another one of those “knock knock, who’s there” gags), we’ll all take the opportunity — if not the obligation — to hit the pause button and ask ourselves: will we look back on our life with satisfaction or sorrow?
Naturally, each one of us must answer this question in our own way, and on our own terms: for better and for worse. And with respect to the latter, in speaking with hundreds of patients for more than a decade, here is what Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware found were the top five regrets of the dying:
1. “I wish I had the courage to live the life I wanted, instead of life the life that others expected of me.”
How many of us entered a career, married a spouse, or made any other major decision because others expected it — or perhaps insisted on it? While deferring to parents and other well-meaning family members and friends can be noble, it’s also true that we come into this world alone — and we’ll leave it alone. Will your future self be proud of the choices that you’re making right now?
2. “I wish that I hadn’t worked so hard.”
This one is a top regret of the living, too. We’re entered an era where workaholism is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, we keep pushing ourselves so that we’ll have security in the future. Ironically, however, we damage — or shorten — that very same future when we work so hard that we compromise our health and wellness. For example: many people who can’t relax (even their vacations are hectic and stressful) end up having to consult an orthopedic surgeon because of chronic pain.
3. “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”
We often don’t hesitate to express our feelings when we’re angry, but when we’re sorry, when we’re hurt, or when we feel compassion and love, we’re likely to shut down and stay silent. And worst of all, when the end comes, so does the awareness that the courage was there all along. It was just buried deep inside.
4. “I wish that I’d kept in touch with my friends.”
Friendships are like gardens: they need to be cared for and cultivated. Otherwise, they shrivel up and die. And sometimes the soil is so ruined, that nothing ever grows there again.
5. “I wish that I’d let myself be happier.”
By far, this is the most devastating of Ware’s observations. We go through life assuming that our happiness depends on others, and on situations. But at the end, we realize — with staggering clarity — that we had the power to be happy or unhappy all along.
The Bottom Line
Life is short, and it flashes away in the blink of an eye. But rather than filling you with dread or sadness, this should actually inspire you to take action now. Not next month, not next week — but now. It doesn’t have to be profound. Perhaps you just decide to forgive someone in your heart. Or perhaps you see if that artist or musician or chef inside you still exists by signing up for an online class. Whatever you do, remember this: you have much, much more say in whether you’ll look back upon your life with happiness or regret.
So, what’ll it be?