The Regrets of the Dying

06 January 2014 · 13 comments

The Regrets of the DyingFor the next year at More Than Money, we’re going to have a conversation about how to obtain personal and financial independence. To begin, I want to talk about death.

Australian singer-songwriter Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care for many years, spending time with men and women who were about to die. As she nursed her patients, she listened to them describe their fear, anger, and remorse. She noticed recurring themes.

In 2009, Ware wrote about her experience in a blog post that went viral. She turned that article into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. When people die, she says, they often express one or more of the following sentiments:

  • “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People (especially men) often find themselves trapped on what economists call the “hedonic treadmill”. They work to achieve material wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. Instead, they want more. So, they work harder to achieve even greater wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. And so on, in an endless cycle. People trapped on the hedonic treadmill are never happy because their reality never meets their ever-increasing expectations.
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” In order to keep the peace and avoid rejection, we sometimes bottle our emotions inside. But refusing to be open and honest leads to a life of quiet desperation. Sure, the barista at the coffeehouse might laugh if you ask her to dinner; it’s also possible that dinner could lead to the love of a lifetime. On your deathbed, you’ll regret the things you didn’t say and do far more than the things you’ve done.
  • “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” In Aging Well, George Vaillant summarizes more than fifty years of Harvard research into adult development. “Successful aging [is] best achieved in relationship,” he writes. “It is not the bad things that happen to use that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” In The Blue Zones, his book about populations of people that live longer than most, Dan Buettner writes that two secrets to a long and healthy life are making family a priority and finding the right “tribe”. At the end of their lives, people who failed to foster friendships regret it. (Here’s my summary of The Blue Zones.)
Blue Zones commonalities
Common attributes among Blue Zones

  • “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” Happiness is a choice. Your well-being doesn’t depend on the approval or opinion of others. Happiness comes from one place and one place only: You. Because this idea is key to personal and financial success (and because it’s so well-documented in happiness research), we’ll discuss it at length in the months to come.
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.” Ware says this regret is most common of all. “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it,” she writes, “it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.” We spend too much time doing the things that others expect of us. (Or the things we think are expected of us.) But living for the approval of others is a trap. We can never hope to please everyone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to please anyone – other than yourself.

These regrets share a common theme. In each case, the dying lament having spent too much time seeking outside approval instead of focusing on their own feelings, values, and relationships. This is true regardless of wealth and social status.

Ware is not a nurse and she’s not a scientist – her observations are based on experience, not empirical data – but, from my reading, her conclusions match the research into happiness and human development.

Money can’t buy happiness – at least not directly. Money is a powerful tool, it’s true. Abused, it brings sorrow and suffering. Used wisely, it opens doors, delivers dreams, and fosters joy. Although wealth is no guarantee of well-being, the more money you have, the easier it becomes to flourish.

The bottom line: You don’t want to be rich – you want to be happy.

On your deathbed, you want to have lived a life without regret. To do that, you need to face and defeat your fears. You need to find joy in day-to-day activities, and then use that happiness as a platform to procure passion and purpose. And you need to forge freedom, both personal and financial.

This blog will show you how. Over the next year, we’ll explore each of these topics, and we’ll discuss specific strategies to improve your life. I’ll share what I know, and I hope that you’ll share your knowledge and experience too.

1 PawPrint January 6, 2014 at 09:13

I’m looking forward to this series. One time I gathered up my courage and asked a man out, which wasn’t really done much at that time. We’ve been married 32 wonderful years.

2 Tyler Karaszewski January 6, 2014 at 09:41

I don’t know if maybe this is going to be a little too forthright, but I think I’m just going to say it anyway. It’s about he last item on this list.

My wife never liked sailing. She tried to like it, and I respected her for that. She took lessons and everything, but she was never really comfortable around water or on boats that are designed (as they are) to lean when they’re moving. We went on one sailing trip together, to Greece, and while overall the trip was a blast, we really didn’t end up doing all that much sailing.

I had (still have) this dream of getting a big cruising boat and island-hopping around the Caribbean or French Polynesia for a few months at a time. When my wife was still alive, I thought that maybe one day I would still figure out some way to make that happen, but had pretty much resigned myself to knowing I’d never get to do that (it didn’t really help that my wife hated the idea of separate vacations).

Well, since she passed away, I’ve rekindled my interest in sailing. I actually met my new girlfriend on a sailboat this past summer. I’m buying a new race boat. Currently, with work and a young child and all, I don’t have the time to sail around the Caribbean for weeks or months at a time, but sailing buoy races here in the bay on a little racing boat will be fun in the meantime. But my dream is alive again. I can actually see figuring out how to make it work now. I have a sort of nation that I’ll pay off my house early and then buy my cruising boat then. I’d be around 50. My girlfriend would love to do something like that, too.

But it’s interesting to look back on what I was giving up for my marriage in the past. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that much. All relationships are compromises and we give up some things to make any of them work. But I am happy to have my sailing dream back. Maybe this summer my girlfriend and I can rent a boat in the Caribbean for a week. It’d be a fun sailing trip this time.

3 Joe January 6, 2014 at 09:42

I made a huge improvement over these last few years. I’m living for myself and my family now and not anyone else. I work as much as I’d like and I spend a lot of time with my kid.
I agree that at the end of the line, we’d want a happy life instead of a materialistic one. Money helps, but it’s not the sole objective.

4 Andrea Coutu January 6, 2014 at 09:53

I couldn’t agree more. To me, it’s always been about balance, although I have to admit that financial security is a huge value for me, too. But I started my consulting business when I was just 23 years old because I could not see how on earth to balance my life with the demands of a 9 to 5 job. I gave up a lot to do that, but it has worked well for me, much of the time. However, in reading the above, I have to wonder why cultural isolation would help people live longer?! That surprises me.

5 Cat W January 10, 2014 at 10:06

Good article… The perspective is great. And a response to Andrea about the cultural isolation bit. I live in Hawaii and we are in some ways isolated from the rest of American society. But as an island community, even in the city, there is a small-town feel. Culturally, as in island culture with a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds, people tend to take more time here, slow things down, “talk story”, the fine thread is cultivating a strong sense of family or a close social network. My friend lives in Hana, Maui, population 1250, and she knows everyone and there is an unspoken kinship from being in a small town, related or not. You can get help, support, friendship, it’s available and provides access to a level of healthy, connected social well-being that is missing from metropolitan cities. People seem to know you and care a little more, because it’s culture and practical living. (And my friend’s grandmother died at 98, living in Hana all her life).

6 martin January 6, 2014 at 12:07

Damn. That’s funny. We both referenced the top five regrets of the dying today. The one that opened my eyes is:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

We all get so consumed and distracted with work that we allow ourselves to forget about everything else. We are too busy to even respond to texts.

7 Romeo January 6, 2014 at 16:43

Martin,

You seem to reference dying a lot. Stay with us, brother. :-)

8 martin January 6, 2014 at 22:06

I got another 100 years of stealing kisses left!

9 Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions January 6, 2014 at 14:39

This resonates so much with me! About two years ago, we moved to a new town so we could be closer to family and friends. This area has a much higher cost of living, and my income went on a rollercoaster ride. Our “standard of living” financially is much lower — we can afford less — but our emotional “standard” is so much higher, now that we spend more time with the people we love.

10 Romeo January 6, 2014 at 16:42

Interesting, J.D.

I think the majority of these issues can be attributed to capitalistic societies. Unfortunately, the chase for fame and fortune severs many relationships. In fact, I think each of the bullet points above can all be related to chasing “success.”

11 Cody Limbaugh January 6, 2014 at 20:55

“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
-James M. Barrie

12 Carla January 6, 2014 at 23:04

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

It’s interesting how the paragraph went on under the assumption that those who worked hard obtained wealth in the first place. I know of many people who worked their fingers to the bone and went on (in death) without a penny in the bank, not by choice.

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