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Common Regrets: Two to Reflect On

Updated: Apr 23

Everyone wants different things out of their journey through life, but I think it’s safe to assume that no one wants to end that journey with regrets. The last thing you want when you’re looking at the end is crippling regret. Bronnie Ware, an Australian end-of-life care nurse, wrote a book about her observations of her patients’ dying revelations called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware spent the last days and weeks of a patient’s life with them, and would question them about their regrets. What things they would do differently if given the chance. Ware believes that the clarity these patients experienced at the end of their lives offers the living wisdom, if we only listen.

Over the years of Ware’s experience, five common themes or regrets were repeated. Two seem particularly significant.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard was a regret that came from every male patient she nursed. When at the end of their lives, men regretted missing their children growing up, and the time they should have spent with their partner. Women expressed this regret too, but most of her patients were from older generations and women were not the breadwinners. But the men… The men regretted spending so much of their lives working.

Think about it. If there are 8,760 hours in a year, the average full-time job consumes 2,256 hours—47 hours a week for 48 weeks. (But we all know many work far more than this example.) The typically commute in America is around 24 minutes one-way, so that’s around another 240 hours a year. And if you get your eight hours a night, that adds up to 2,920 hours. What do all these sums mean? It means you spend over half of your pre-retired, adult life working or unconscious. And how many hours of the remaining portion is spent cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, paying bills, etc? How many hours of each day do you have left to spend with your loved ones? Not many.(Sources: WNYC, CNN)

Time is precious, and it is one of the few things in life that you cannot make, buy, or borrow more of. When so much of it is already accounted for, why would you want to spend more of it working, missing time with those you love?

Sometimes you have no choice. You have to put in the overtime for that big project. But it is healthier to step away sometimes too. Turn off your cell phone and email for a night, go to the zoo instead of working on a Saturday. Find a balance. And when you can retire—your nest egg is large enough and you feel it’s time—do so.

The simple fact is, no matter how healthy we are, we can’t work forever. There will come a time when we are no longer able to drive, or when holding a job is no longer an option for us for other reasons. By that point, when your health has degraded, you won’t be physically able to do all the things you put off. Your partner may not be there anymore. And you certainly can’t get back the time you lost with your children and family.

Even if you are one of the lucky few who truly, deeply loves your job, there is more to life than work. Friends, family, adventure, charity, learning… There are many possible priorities to pursue. You can enrich your life in other ways.

I wish that I had let myself be happier

Allowing yourself to be happy is something almost everyone can work on. The first way you can do this is to figure out what you need to save for your retirement and what your necessary expenses are. A financial plan can help with this. Once you know exactly what you need to save, and what needs to go to your bills every month, you can also figure out how much money you can spend. Decide what your pocket change, mad money, or fun money is, so you know when you can treat yourself.

A lot of people are so afraid of running out of money, or not having enough, that they pinch every penny. Even when they don’t need to. They might forgo vacations, skip a nice dinner out, and all the other little luxuries that could make a big difference in the quality of their life. If you have what you need, and money isn’t an objection, wouldn’t if feel good to get that dream car that you’ve been putting off?

There is a difference between overspending, and an occasional splurge. The former will likely leave you with debts, but the latter might make life a little more enjoyable. When you have that once in a lifetime opportunity to do something you’ve always dreamed off, do you want to regret saying no just to save money that you didn’t really need? While leaving a legacy or donating to charity are both admirable goals, wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy the money you worked so hard to earn?

The other way you can let yourself be happy is to not focus on the little imperfections in life. Bear with me, this gets a little deep and existential, but I believe it’s something we all could find value in. Let me tell you about my friend Sue. She turned forty a couple of years ago. For her birthday she wanted to see “Wicked.” It was something Sue had dreamed about. She knew who was performing Glinda and Elphaba, had read the book, knew all the words to the songs, and the soundtrack was on frequent play in her car.

Sue and her husband got dressed up and went to dinner at her favorite restaurant before the show. With a belly full of the best steak she had ever tasted, and giddy on a few glasses of red wine, they went to the theater downtown. They settled into their amazing seats, and Sue opened the program to find the role of Elphaba would be played by someone else.

Disaster! Sue was heartbroken. The entire evening was ruined for her. It didn’t matter that the show was still amazing, just like dinner had been, to Sue the entire evening was ashes. She lost sight of the night’s possible joy because of one “flaw.”

Happiness is often a choice. It might be unconsciously made, but you can decide to be happy. Or not.

How many people have stayed in a job they hated for fear of change? How about those that failed to make a change in their life that could have made them truly happy? Moving to a new city, into a new home, getting married, or divorced. Change is hard, but sometimes it can make us happier. Don’t get hung up on the small stuff, the things you can’t control. Don’t let the chance to be happy pass you by, and become a regret.

Embrace life, and the little things that bring a smile to your face. Make a choice to spend time doing things that matter to you.

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