Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

What Do You Regret?

Reading about regrets of the dying might help teach us how to live

Regret is a bitter emotion, so painful that the urge to avoid it often drives decision-making strategies. Regret avoidance can be a reason to forestall any kind of commitment—to a job, a girlfriend, a religion, a place to live—out of fear that you’ll want to revisit one of those options the instant it disappears.

In Twentysomething, Samantha and I had a whole long section on regret research, focusing on the findings that suggest that what people tend to regret most, looking back on life, are regrets of omission rather than regrets of comission -- being sorry about what they failed to do, rather than about what they did.

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It’s not surprising, when you think about it, for regrets of omission to overshadow regrets of commission. If you regret something you did, there’s usually a chance to undo it—through divorce, for instance, or with tattoo-zapping lasers—so the effects of the mistake don’t have to linger. (A handful of regrets of commission, such as having a child, are life-altering and impossible to undo; efforts to deal with the aftershocks of such profound remorse are of a different order of magnitude than the more ordinary regrets we’re talking about here.) Even if you can’t fix your regrettable action, you can often rationalize it with the thought that, yes, it was the wrong thing to do, but at least you learned a lesson from it.

But you can’t really claim to have learned a lesson from the wrong thing you didn’t do. The chance you passed up or missed could have had any number of different outcomes, and it’s easy to fantasize about how much better every one of those outcomes would have been. That’s why the boy who got away, the job you didn’t try, the place you didn’t live, will always cause more remorse than the things you did that you shouldn’t have done.

To me, it's always interesting to see what people end up regretting, as a way maybe to avoid such regrets in your own life. Which is why I was pleased to see this book about the most common regrets of dying people has a special appeal to me -- called, descriptively enough, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. I first read about the book on a blog called Collective Evolution, in a post that my old friend Pat linked to on her Facebook page. And here's what the author, Bronnie Ware, who calls herself "an inspiring and creative sould from Australia," found out about people's regrets at the end of their lives:

1. People regretted having lived to please the expectations of others instead of themselves. "Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams," writes Ware, "and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

2. People regretted having worked so hard.“This came from every male patient that I nursed," she writes. They "deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” I suspect that this will be true, from now on, for women as well as men, now that women work as hard as men and are often the breadwinners of the family -- and now that the "treadmill of a work existence" that both men and women are on seems to be running nonstop, seven days a week.

3. People regretted not having expressed their true feelings. According to Ware, this often led to bitterness, resentment, and living a "mediocre existence" that fell short of the life they could have lived.

4. People regretted losing touch with friends. "Everyone misses their friends when they are dying," Ware writes. Facebook generation, take note.

5. People regretted not being happier. "Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice." she writes. She was surprised at how many people longed to "laugh properly" and be silly again, things they had lost while getting stuck in old patterns and habits and being afraid of change.

What do you regret now, or imagine regretting 10, 20, 30 years in the future?

 

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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