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How often do you reflect upon the five most common regrets of the dying?

Today is June 4 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you reflect upon the five most common regrets of the dying?” Few people like to contemplate their demise but those who navigate the chaos often recall the words of entrepreneur and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs who said: “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies first in a blog that received a good deal of attention and then published her posts in a 2012 book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. "When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently," she says, "common themes surfaced again and again."

Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

  • I wish I had not worked so hard.

  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

The most common regret was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." According to Ware “this was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made."

The second most common regret was "I wish I hadn't worked so hard." According to Ware "this came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence." Are you aware of the five most common regrets of the dying? And what are you doing to ensure that you have no regrets at the time of your death?

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

Academic research compliments Ware’s findings from her experience. A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a 2012 book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant entitled Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

According to the research a happy and meaningful life consists of the following five elements:

  • loving relationships

  • money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness

  • we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives

  • connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages

  • coping well with challenges makes you happier

What is most interesting from the observations by Ware and findings by Vaillant is the ability of the individual to impact the direction of their life. If nothing else, understanding the five regrets of the dying, and the five elements of a meaningful life, reminds us of what is most important as we travel the path of navigating the chaos. As you go about your day, reflect upon how often you remind yourself of the five regrets of the dying.

  • How often do you remind yourself to have the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect of you?

  • How often do you remind yourself to not work so hard?

  • How often do you express your feelings?

  • How often do you remind yourself to be happier?

  • How often do you stay in touch with your friends?


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