Death is perhaps the most constructive fact of our existence. Being aware of death throughout your life can beget the healthiest attitude: one of perspective.
Countless people throughout history knew this too. The ancient Greeks used to “practice death every day,” and the Toltecs would use death as “fuel to live and to love.” The constant reminder ensured they would live more boldly, more kindly, and with less fear.
The Good News About Death
Here's how the morbid subject can actually benefit us: Our limited days on earth are the ultimate impetus to live with less fear and more intention.
The majority of the time, many of us live as if there will be no end to our days. We stay in unfulfilling careers. We remain in unhappy relationships. We will travel the world “one day.” We fail to tell people how much they matter to us. We hide our real truth, gifts, or talents from the world because we are scared of being judged and criticized.
Losing a parent when I was young made this much more real for me. I felt blessed to come to the realization of how precarious and precious life is while still in my younger years. But you don’t need a loss early in your life to take advantage of the wisdom that awaits you. Learn from people who know.
One of my favorite books is Bronnie Ware’s international bestseller The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Ware was a hospice nurse in Australia for several years and cared for patients in the last few weeks of their lives. She writes with incredible clarity how similar regrets surfaced again and again.
Surprise, surprise: There was no mention of insufficient status; undelivered revenge; or sadness over not being the thinnest, prettiest, or most famous. These were the most common regrets. (Numbers one and five could make me weep.)
The 5 Most Common Regrets
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all," Ware writes. "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. 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."
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"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. 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."
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize 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.”
Get Clear on What You Want
Here's an exercise I perform with my clients, which you can do at home to figure out what you want to do, have, and be during your precious days on planet earth.
Take an hour to be quiet with yourself, a time without distractions when you will not be interrupted. Picture yourself in your elderly years. Attempt to see your life through the lens of your 80- or even 90-year-old self.
Start a conversation with this wiser, older version of you. Be blatantly honest. Ask yourself:
- What do I really, really, really want?
- Where am I holding back?
- What will I congratulate myself for having the courage to do, right now?
- What part of myself do I really need to honor and be true to (even if this goes against others' expectations of me)?
- What really makes me feel happy and alive?
- How can I make my happiness and my truth my number one priority?
It’s up to you to get the highest possible return on every day of your limited life. You can eradicate these potential regrets, starting now.
Whenever you think upon these questions, keep that older version of yourself in mind constantly. And every day, with every small action you take in the direction of your personal truth and happiness, he or she will be there, encouraging you. And he or she will be smiling.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for her free weekly wellness tips on her website, and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!