How To Improve Your Life Based on Regrets of the Dying
It's time to start living a life worth telling your grandkids about.
I’m not sure how so many of us got the idea that we have time to do the things that make us happy in the future. The simple fact is that nothing in life is guaranteed, especially not fairness or time. For many years I worked 18 hour days, slaving away at my desk until my eyeballs itched and begged for rest. That is until I realized what a complete and utter waste of my life that is.
I’m writing you from a tiny cafe across the street from a park in Mexico City, sitting at a wooden table in the shade of an umbrella sipping a warm cappuccino. With a belly full of Italian food that I savored slowly in the middle of the day. I’ve just bought a plant from a small boy with a friendly smile that I’ll lovingly plant on my boyfriend’s balcony later on today. He’ll pretend to be surprised that I’ve once again brought home a plant for him to take care of.
Earlier this morning I was singing a different tune, feeling a bit like a failure to launch while lounging on the couch with my cuddly cat. I felt like I should be outside living my life, but wasn’t feeling very motivated to get moving. Instead, I scrolled through the stories of others living theirs.
I watched a Youtube video of a girl doing a two-day solo hike in Croatia. Saw a friend of mine run barefoot in salt flats on a road trip via Instagram stories. Looked back on my recent photos from a hike in upstate New York. It’s easy to feel like you’re missing out while you’re planted on the couch in your pajamas.
Then I reminded myself of something — all of the moments I want to experience are waiting for me just outside of the door. All I have to do is get dressed and start moving and the day would unravel at my feet. And so I went.
I am often reminded of an article I read in The Guardian about a nurse who asked her dying patients what their top regrets in life were. Their answers were relatable and since then I’ve been working towards excelling where they fell short to live an authentic life worth experiencing. Here are the top five wishes of the dying:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This one speaks to me because I’ve fluttered in and out of caring about the expectations of others for my entire life. I seem to either be blissfully on my path or struggling in silence trying to perfect every tiny detail of a project to meet the imaginary needs of those who know my past work.
One thing I think we can all agree on is that it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. We can’t possibly make everyone proud of us at any given moment, so why even try? I find myself most impressed by those who seem to be doing their own thing, happily enjoying the process of whatever that might be. Why work so hard to fit in when those who we admire work tirelessly to stand out?
In reality we can only know what makes us happy based on our past experiences, it’s how we base what will make us happy in the future. What this means is that we must constantly try new things to discover if it’s something that will bring us happiness. So get busy finding happiness and fulfillment, and quit the uphill battle of trying to satisfy the judgments of strangers on the internet who don’t truly matter.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
This one is difficult because we all know that with a steady income and proper savings and investing, life becomes a whole lot more enjoyable and freedom isn’t so elusive. However, I will say that it’s entirely possible to “work smarter, not harder” and achieve your goals.
When I was younger I busted my ass for companies for an hourly wage that nobody would apply for now. I remember working for a medical publisher making photocopies of ophthalmology articles in old print magazines for doctors all over the United States. I spent a lot of time in the minuscule library searching for pages and standing in front of a photocopier. It paid (some of) the bills, but I got home with enough time to eat dinner and watch TV and prepare for the next day — not very exciting or fulfilling if I am being honest.
When you think of trading hours of your life for money that you are then convinced into spending on frivolous items such as fast fashion and poorly crafted tech gadgets that are advertised to you while online, how do you feel? If you’re anything like me the thought of that probably feels quite bad.
Here’s what I did about it. I created multiple sources of income from an array of different hobbies and interests. When I do work for others, I ensure that I am paid fairly for my time and efforts. I created a work-life balance that suits me and doesn’t leave me feeling empty and unfulfilled. I’m still working on this, and you should be too.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
This can be interpreted so many ways, but let’s go with relationships. By that, I mean friendships, family, and of course romantic relationships as well. Once you start speaking your truth you’ll realize how much less stress and anxiety you feel. When you put your wants and needs out into the world people either make an effort to meet you halfway, or they don’t. There’s not a lot of mystery there.
If instead you’re holding everything in and praying for a miracle that your parent becomes a mind-reader — or your friend magically stops dumping all of their emotional baggage onto you — then prepare for a long as hell wait. Speak up and you’ll find that people will respect you more, which leads to happiness on your end.
Here’s an example: The other day a friend of mine told me that she wasn’t connecting that well physically with her new boyfriend, but that she pretends to orgasm during sex so as not to make things awkward.
I expressed to her that she was doing both of them a disservice. Not only is she not feeling satisfied (and probably increasing her level of dissatisfaction as time goes on) but she’s not giving him proper feedback to make positive changes on his end. How will their relationship improve and grow if proper communication isn’t a priority?
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
This one is a killer. Some people have been social from birth it seems, always surrounded by a large social circle. Others pick and choose friends along the way, often losing them to distance or a change of circumstance. What we do know is that the older we get, the more time we spend alone. Your parents pass away, your kids (if you choose to have any) go off to college and then start their own lives, your friends get married and become too busy to hang out. You know how it goes.
It can be difficult to make new friends as an adult, but it’s super important to make an effort. With the rise of social media, we tend to have surface relationships with our friends, sending a well-timed emoji or dropping a like here and there. Is that good enough though? No, it’s not.
When is the last time you wrote a handwritten letter or sent a postcard? Do you even know your friend’s addresses? How about met a friend for lunch just to chat without expecting anything in return? It’s necessary to go out of your way to touch base with friends these days, everyone is busy but that shouldn’t be mistaken for disinterest in you. Don’t be afraid to make the first call.
I’ve made an effort to reach out to friends, and especially to be present when I am with them. I put my phone away, ask them open-ended questions about themselves, and offer support without giving advice. Keep it light and fun, friendships should be enjoyable and feel like an escape from monotonous daily life.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
What is happiness to you? I can tell you what it is NOT. Happiness is not a continual state, it’s something that ebbs and flows. It’s something that you stumble upon throughout the day, a smile here, a chuckle there, or a moment where you’re realizing that something you’re experiencing is bringing you joy.
You probably allow yourself to get overwhelmed with the small misfortunes of day-to-day life, it’s a bad habit we all succumb to at some point. Do not dwell on the little inconveniences or failures of those around you. Don’t be the punching bag for a friend who’s going through some tough emotional stuff, learn how to be supportive and set healthy boundaries.
Many times we will find all the reasons in the world to be bothered or unhappy, but won’t make the effort to see the positive side of things. Change it up. Realize now that nobody is coming to save you and that if you don’t make the effort, nobody will.
Soak up the positive bits about your day. For example, I stumbled upon a fortune (from a fortune cookie) submerged in a fountain while walking today. I took a closer look and was surprised that it was legible. It read, “You will enjoy good health and financial independence.” I am not sure of the rules of fortunes but let’s revert back to grade school rules and go with finders keepers.
You’re welcome to spend the best years of your life slaving away for money that you’ll probably blow on useless material things, waiting for someone else to send the first text, and drowning in the sorrows of others but I’m not gonna recommend it. Keep these 5 regrets of the dying in mind next time you find yourself itching for a change.