What the Five Regrets of the Dying Teach Us about Living

girl sitting in meadowAs a holistic psychotherapist and yogi, I found Bronnie Ware’s insights into the five regrets of dying people most elucidating. She was a palliative care nurse for years. By listening to her patients before they died, she was able to glean the five regrets many of them took to the grave.

The first one, and the most typical, was: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

The yogic ideal is to be true to yourself. Of course, that entails a certain amount of awareness. If you are avoiding ways to look at your life, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, you will have a hard time living an authentic life. By taking the time to cruise your own heart, brain, and actions, you can learn what makes you tick and choose work, people, and activities that have a greater chance of bringing joy and fulfillment.

The second regret: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

One of the essential teachings in the most basic yoga practice is balance. Even if someone’s work was deeply meaningful to them, spending all your time on one thing does not make for a very fulfilling life. Men, especially, regretted not spending more time watching their children grow up and enjoying their spouse’s company.

By carving out some space every day to be with the people you love, studying something for your own development, savoring a cup of tea, allowing a hug to linger, looking out a window, taking a walk, listening to the birds, watching the clouds, dancing, meditating, hearing live music, playing a game with your children, or anything else that is done for pure enjoyment, you rejuvenate yourself. Ask: Have I explored all five senses today? If not, seek out ways to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear something that nurtures your body, mind, and spirit.

The third regret: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Lack of assertiveness is a surefire way to ensure you will not get what you want. No one can possibly help you if you can’t express your desires and preferences. Luckily, assertiveness skills are fairly quick and easy to learn. It helps to understand the difference between three things: aggression, assertiveness, and passivity. Aggression is demanding what you want, passivity is keeping silent about your desires, and assertiveness is kindly asking.

Even if you were brought up to believe that you don’t deserve to have your wishes granted, you can reverse that inner mantra by starting to act assertively in small ways. In time, your confidence will grow as you see how most people like pleasing others, whether it’s the dressing on the side of your salad at a restaurant or more affection from a spouse.

Keeping peace by staying silent only breeds resentment and, ultimately, harms relationships.

The fourth regret: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

It’s easy to allow modern technology to deceive you into thinking time on Facebook or incessant texting equals real time with friends. It doesn’t. If you want to release a cascade of endorphins in your brain, spend more time with people whose company you enjoy. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.

“In the end it all comes down to love and relationships,” Ms. Ware says. She seems to imply those relationships must be with people. I disagree. They can also be with animals, nature, music, and art, among other things. That said, we are all connected molecularly and have a natural affinity to relate to each other. Depriving oneself of closeness with others can lead to feeling isolated, disconnected, and lonely.

The last regret: I wish that I had let myself be happier.

How does one let oneself be happier? Interestingly, it is often through mindfulness. Pay attention to everything that gives you joy. Stop reading this for a minute and jot down all the little things that you liked in your day, so far. Maybe you were comfortable in your clothes, sat down and had a good breakfast, read an interesting article in the paper, exercised, meditated, talked with a friend, heard a favorite song, laughed at a joke, finished a project, or felt good in your body. No matter what challenge is assailing you, there are always positives you can appreciate.

While there are many ways to squeeze more joy out of life, they all require some effort. Choosing to find joy and actively focusing on everything that might create happiness in your life is up to you.

Iris Murdoch once said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” The person who pays attention to all the little treats in life, and consciously includes them daily, is far happier than the one who takes everything for granted or thinks only big experiences such as trips, degrees, grandchildren, and promotions are the only things capable of catalyzing joy.

These five regrets have one thing in common: they show a failure to appreciate how living fully means allowing oneself the opportunity to experience as much as possible. That means different things to different people, but being engaged, open, honest, and present seems to underlie each one.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Duane

    Duane

    February 27th, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    I think the one that hit me the hardest was the tip about letting yourself be happier.

    I have always been so critical of myself and others; but looking at things from this point of view, I want to ask why? What good does it do to be so critical and go through life so put upon, when I could have been so much happier most of the time had I been willing to accept small deviations from I consider to be right, and stop worrying so much about being right to begin with.

  • rod

    rod

    February 28th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    I find it sad that so many people don’t recognize the things that they should have done or wish they could have done until it is too late. Friends, today could be the last day of your life. Isn’t there a way you would like for your friends and family to remember you?

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    February 28th, 2014 at 8:16 AM

    Hi Duane,
    Thank you for sharing so openly.
    The good news is you realize you can live more vibrantly.
    Go for it!
    People usually regret the things they didn’t do rather than the ones they did.
    You may also find this article helpful: “No Mistakes, Only Lessons.”
    It’s here:
    holisticdivorce.wordpress.com/category/no-mistakes-only-lessons-2/
    It’s can be very helpful to start a joy journal, as it encourages you to notice everything that is going well in your life, and all there is to enjoy.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    February 28th, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Rod.
    You are so right, this moment is all we have. Mining it for all it’s worth is our highest and best work, something we van best accomplish by being our true self.

    Marianne Williamson once said:

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
    (If the religious aspect of this quote is not for you, just substitute “the universe” for the word God.)

  • donita

    donita

    February 28th, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    At the very least, these very honest thoughts should give us the courage to live life more to our own likinmg and not be so concerned with what others think or want us to do.

  • tobias

    tobias

    March 1st, 2014 at 5:40 AM

    IMHO life is too short to end up on your death bed regretting all of the things that you did or did not do. Live each day to the fullest, love your friends and family, and make it that you will have no regrets when thos elast days come.

  • Cooper

    Cooper

    March 3rd, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    I hope that when I get to this stage of life that I have no regrets. I know that this is a pretty lofty goal, but I also think that if you live right then you have a shot at making this happen.

  • jerry

    jerry

    March 4th, 2014 at 1:06 AM

    When i would like I would experienced the braveness to call home any existence genuine to myself personally, not living other.

  • Paui

    Paui

    January 22nd, 2018 at 6:01 PM

    I found this article most helpful since I’m 62 and retired with lots of regrets from my life so far. I think the posts about finding happiness in lot’s of little things and reminding everyone that we only have the present moment helped me greatly. I’m trying to push past my regrets but I have so many I get depressed and overwhelmed. Attending CBT sessions every month with a LPC which have helped some but I still struggle every day with chronic depression. Any comments from others??

  • Susan B.

    Susan B.

    April 15th, 2018 at 6:05 PM

    Dear Paui I have struggled with depression, and daily regrets in my life and I Am My Own Worst Enemy , but if you believe in God and you believe that he forgives you all you have to do is ask him and it’s done, if you believe that he forgives you then why can’t you forgive yourself. Also depression can be a chemical imbalance which no matter what you do it cannot be balanced until you’re on the right medication or the right plan the doctor gives you. Try to be easier on yourself in and a little kinder to yourself! don’t be so hard on yourself, just the way I’m sure you have a big heart just the way you would not be hard on somebody else that was feeling bad, treat yourself the same way and be good to yourself ..God loves you and I’m sure a lot of other people do to. Just know it’s not your fault. I have found a therapist that I fit with and a decent medicine doctor if you’re not doing that, those things may help you cuz you kind of really can’t go it alone , and somebody will validate you and your feelings and find out why, if there’s something wrong ,or bring it to your attention so they can fix it. If it’s situational and it’s something that is out of your hands it’s best to talk to other people to help you and support you and pray , and if it’s in your hands then you can think about how to change it because if you don’t change anything you can’t expect a different outcome..
    I hope I helped a little bit God bless be well and take care of yourself…

  • Addison

    Addison

    March 4th, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    Goodness, I don’t want to lay dying but be thinking of all the shoulda couldas. I want to be there surrounded by those who love me and that I love, remembering the good times that we had together and not the regrets that I have had in life. That’s so sad to think about, because that would only make you lonely and I don’t want to be lonely when going through this process.

  • Stephen

    Stephen

    September 22nd, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    Yet another great article out of good therapy ! This one certainly makes you stop and think twice about life. Live it up with no regrets ! It can be difficult to live an authentic life, but let me tell ya, it’s well worth putting in the work.

  • Susan B

    Susan B

    April 15th, 2018 at 6:06 PM

    Great article!

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