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“Regrets are illuminations come too late.” –Joseph Campbell

Today we are going to look at the 5 most common regrets people face on their deathbeds.

Why talk about regret in a series on happiness? Because regret is a huge happiness killer.

People have done extensive interviews with the dying—and interestingly—they commonly regret very similar things.

Here is today’s BIG IDEA: We can learn from what people most often regret and start making wise decisions now in order to live more fulfilling and joyful lives.

I still remember a powerful story my dad told me when I was very young.

Although I don’t really remember my grandfather, I am told he was a very stoic man. Typical of men in his generation, he did not show much emotion. During my dad’s entire lifetime, my grandfather never once told my dad that he loved him.

When my grandfather was very ill with pancreatic cancer and nearing the end of his life, my dad decided he would fly back to see him in North Carolina—and planned to tell his dad that he loved him for the very first time—even though my grandfather had never said these words to my dad.

My grandfather died while my dad’s plane was still in the air, and my dad never had the chance to tell his dad that he loved him. I can still see the agony in my dad’s face when he told me this story.

I once heard that the definition of wisdom is learning from those who have gone before you—without having to make all the mistakes they made in order to know what they now know.

What if you could know the types of things you might regret at the end of your life—but learn them now—and make different choices to avoid the painful heartache of wishing you had made different investments with your time?

Understanding the pitfalls of regret is a huge step in leading yourself well—and shapes your modeling for your teams and families.

The 5 Most Common Regrets People Have

When I was in college, I started as a philosophy major—and I was first introduced to existentialism.

Now, talking about death seems pretty heavy and morbid, but one thing the existential philosophers emphasize is the tremendous value in thinking about the end of your life now.

To quote Dave Ramsey, “The last time I checked the statistics, the death rate for adult human beings is still 100%.”

We are all going to die someday—some of us unexpectedly sooner—we just don’t know when.

And people who live in denial of this fact—or purposefully put death out of their minds until the very end—pay a huge price. Thinking about the end of your life can be an incredible catalyst for changing your behavior now and beginning to make decisions to author the legacy you want to have when your life closes it’s final chapter.

This is why many executive coaching companies begin with exercises that force people to think about the end of their lives.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian hospice nurse who spent many years of her life with people who were dying. As she sat with people reflecting on their lives, the good and the bad, she began to see clear themes emerging. People commonly shared strikingly similar regrets when talking about what they wished they would have done differently in life. She recorded these insights in her book, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.

We can glean incredible wisdom from her findings.

Here are the top 5 regrets:

  1. I wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. As a recovering people pleaser and perfectionist, myself, this one hits home. For decades I adjusted my behavior based on people’s reactions. But when you pursue your dreams—one thing is guaranteed—not everyone is going to think it’s a good idea. Some will ridicule or attack you for what you are doing. But the price you pay for dying with your dreams and gifts is too large. Here is what Ware says, “When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind.”
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. While both women and men said this, every single male hospice patient she worked with said this. They missed their children’s youth and lost opportunities to invest in their marriages. Now this next part is profound—many of them felt they could have simplified their lifestyles in order to lessen the need for more income, and hence reduced the need to work such long hours. They would have gladly traded that for more time with the people in their lives who mattered most. Wow.
  3. I wish I had the courage to express my real feelings. Many people swallow their true feelings to keep the peace. Ironically, when we do this, we settle for shallow relationships and never become the people we are capable of being. Others don’t get the benefit of knowing who we really are—and we rob them of the opportunity to change when we are not honest. Sometimes telling the truth also helps us find out about people’s true character—thus helping us shed toxic people from our lives. Furthermore, numerous studies show that swallowing your true feelings can lead to significant health problems, especially over time. Here is something I now believe deeply, when you don’t express your feelings, they will eventually show up somewhere in your body.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with friends. As many prior studies have shown, relationships and a sense of community is vital to a thriving life. Make the time to invest, you won’t regret it.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier. Many people stay stuck in old patterns and habits, not realizing until much later in life that happiness is a choice. Research confirms that about 50% of our happiness is based on how we choose to see things and react to them. Ware’s patients wished they had been sillier, laughed more, and focused more on being content with what they already had.

“When faced with your rapidly approaching death, all the physical details of life fall away. Money and status hold no true importance. All that remains is love and relationships.” –Bronnie Ware

Notice that what she found in her interviews is very similar to other research findings we have discussed previously in this series (See my prior posts on Harvard happiness research and the 7 Habits of Happy People).

The “illumination of regret” does not have to come too late for you.

How can you apply this learning to your life right now?

Your homework—Turn information into action

  1. Don’t live in denial of your death. Set aside time this week to reflect on the 5 things above. How do your current behaviors stack up with the regrets listed? Give yourself a score on each item (1 for not doing well, 5 means you do as well as you can in this area). As you look at your score, are you on a trajectory for regret at the end of your life? Or peace and fulfillment?

Suggested resources

Bronnie Ware—The top 5 regrets of the dying

Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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