What are the biggest regrets we have in life?
Australian nurse Bronnie Ware had become intimately familiar with life’s regrets: she worked in palliative care, taking care of patients in the final three months of their lives. During that time, she heard countless stories of regret from those who no longer had the opportunity to make up for them.
Ware documented her patient’s stories as they lay dying in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, and later turned them into the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
According to Ware, her patients had epiphanies in their final days, and a clarity of vision that they might have lacked earlier in life. Often, the stories she heard had common themes.
“When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again,” Ware told The Guardian in a 2012 interview.
We should take inspiration from her patients, Ware says, in order to not be left with the same sense of regret in our own final hours.
These were her her patient’s most common regrets, along with our tips on how to avoid making them:
5. I didn’t have the courage to allow myself to be happy.
Many people don’t realize that happiness is a choice, according to Ware, until it’s too late. Because of this, they found themselves stuck in old patterns and habits and were unable to change.
“The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives,” she says. “Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
How to avoid: Take a moment out of each day to focus on you. This can be through daily mediation, journaling, or any other practice that gives you time for personal reflection. Think about what makes you happy in life, and make an effort to seek it out.
4. I didn’t keep in touch with my friends.
Loneliness was one of the common deathbed scenarios. During our final days, we would like to be surrounded by our loved ones — but that’s only possible if we’ve maintained our relationships with them.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down,” Ware says of her patients.
“Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
How to avoid: Modern technology can help us keep in touch with our friends, but it can also cause them to get lost in the shuffle. Identify those you want to stay in touch with, and make an extra effort to regularly reach out to them — beyond social media.
3. I didn’t have the courage to say how I really felt.
Looking back on life, Ware says that many people regretted that they did not tell others how they really felt. In doing so, they prevented themselves from breaking out of an existence that they did not want.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others,” she says. “As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.”
How to avoid: Make a habit of being honest with others, and most importantly, with yourself. Don’t let fear of how other people will react prevent you from saying what you really think.
2. I spent too much time at work.
Every male patient she counseled, says Ware, expressed regret that they worked too hard, and didn’t spend enough time with their families and loved ones.
“They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship,” she says. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
Ware notes that while this was a commonality among male patients from an older generation in which men tended to be the breadwinners, modern generations of women may be left with the same sense of regret later in life.
How to avoid: Seek out employment opportunities that value personal time, and make sure you take regular time away from work. Make use of modern technology and work from home, if possible, to be available with your family while you’re still at work.
1. I didn’t have the courage to live the life I wanted.
According to Ware, the most common regret expressed by dying patients was that they didn’t live the life they knew they wanted to, instead choosing to live the life that others expected of them.
“When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled,” she says.
“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. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
How to avoid it: This is the most difficult regret to overcome, as most of us don’t feel we have the luxury of doing what we really want. But try to take a moment out of every day to reflect on the path you are on, and if it is building towards an end goal that won’t leave you feeling regret.
Do you have any regrets in life? Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to evaluate how you’ve been living — take the initiative today to make a positive change. Cultivating daily courage can help you live the life you really want.