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Five Lessons for a Better Life

Could one of the secrets to a better life be to live like you’re dying?

Source: Lopolo/Shutterstock

As 2019 begins, it’s a natural time to stop and reflect on the previous year. For me, it has been a time of many changes. Perhaps most significantly, this is the year I lost my three remaining grandparents.

It wasn’t surprising, of course. They had lived well into their 90s. It also wasn’t exactly sad. Although no loss feels good, they had lived fully and meaningfully, leaving legacies worthy of cherishing. Only weeks before my paternal grandmother passed away, I asked her if she was scared. “No,” she replied. “Why should I be? I’m ready to see your grandpa.” It was precisely this seeming completeness of their lives that prompted my most pronounced reaction to losing them: It made me stop and think. How can I live my life better? How can I be as ready as they were when my own time comes?

Noted physician Ira Byock proposes a surprisingly simple, yet profound answer to the question of how to live better: Live like you’re dying. He even suggests exactly how to do it. As a palliative care physician, he initially observed that patients with terminal illnesses who focused on completing five specific tasks tended to be more at peace. It turns out, however, that these tasks apply equally well at any stage of life and can potentially help all of us to live more meaningful, loving, and vibrant existences.

Task 1: “I Forgive You”

Even in the closest families and among the closest friends, people who love one another can harbor resentment, frustration, and even anger. Sometimes these feelings are minor, stemming from careless or insensitive remarks. Other times, purposeful insults, heated disagreements, or abusive acts can turn into long-term rifts. People may hold grudges, harbor lifelong resentment, and even seek retribution. Who could blame them?

The problem is that harboring unforgiveness can be bad for our health. A number of years ago, as part of the most comprehensive mental health survey in U.S. history, more than 6,500 U.S. residents answered the question, “Would you say this is true or false? I’ve held grudges against people for years.” Those who answered “true” reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain.

Of course, sometimes a transgression is so severe that it seems unforgivable. If you’ve ever felt this way, it’s important to realize what forgiveness is not. It’s not forgetting or minimizing how much you’ve been hurt. It’s also not pardoning the other person or giving them a “pass” to do it again. It’s not a gift we give to the perpetrator; it’s a gift we give to ourselves. True forgiveness involves breaking the psychological bonds that shackle us to a painful past. It involves recognizing and honoring our own suffering, while also finding the best ways we can to move beyond it. It involves accepting that, as much as we might like to, we can't change the past; we can only embrace the future.

Forgiveness isn’t something anyone is compelled to do, of course. Nobody can, nor should, force us to forgive. But to the degree that we feel ready to do so, forgiveness may help us heal our wounds and live happier lives.

Task 2: “Please Forgive Me”

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably done things in your life that you aren’t proud of. It’s important to know that feeling guilty doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. In fact, it probably means just the opposite — after all, truly bad people don’t feel guilty. Nonetheless, the second task reminds us that asking for forgiveness is often as important as giving it.

As with granting forgiveness, people often hold misconceptions about asking for it. Perhaps the most damaging misconception is that apologizing makes us weak or admits defeat. Similarly, people sometimes believe that apologizing means admitting that they were the only ones who did anything wrong. In many disagreements, there’s enough blame to go around for everyone. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t absolve the other person of any wrongdoing. It simply demonstrates that you personally would have liked to act differently.

A final misconception about apologizing is that it magically will bring about a positive outcome. Apologies aren’t always accepted and, even when they are, sometimes don’t lead to complete resolution of the issue. Much like granting forgiveness, asking for forgiveness is a personal act. It's something we do, because we feel it’s right. If we apologize to bring about a particular outcome, we may be disappointed. Whether or not the person we’re apologizing to responds as we would like, asking for forgiveness and really earning it helps us grow.

Task 3: “Thank You”

A third important task involves experiencing and expressing gratitude. Each day, we probably say “thank you” dozens of times — when someone holds the door, offers us a seat, or says “bless you” when we sneeze. But rarely do we pause our busy days to count our blessings and actually feel thankful. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, however, suggests we should! Investigators found that when people count their blessings on a daily basis, they experience greater positive feelings. They even found that people who habitually count their blessing are more likely to help others than those who don’t. So, giving thanks may not only help the grateful person, it may also help those around them.

Most of us spend more time focusing on the parts of our lives we're not happy with than the parts we're thankful for. In some ways, this is a useful tendency, as identifying our shortcomings can help us improve. But an unfortunate side effect of this tendency is that we too easily take for granted the good things that surround us. Taking even a few minutes each day to experience and express thanks can provide a needed boost to our emotions and even help us fight the blues.

Task 4: “I Love You”

Love is one of the most powerful forces in many of our lives. Unfortunately, people often grow to take love for granted. When we’ve loved someone for years, it’s easy to forget to say, “I love you” or show affection in other ways. It’s a natural human tendency to get caught in the hustle and bustle of daily life, overlooking what’s really important to us.

Sometimes love is awkward, sometimes clumsy. Many of us aren’t very practiced at expressing it, particularly if we grew up in homes where it wasn’t the norm to say “I love you.” But consider all the ways we can show affection — offering a compliment, cooking a meal, or even simply sending a card or a quick email. Some expressions of love don’t even require any particular words or actions at all. As we approach the holiday season, sometimes love is simply about making time to be with those we care about.

Task 5: “Goodbye”

Nobody likes saying goodbye to someone they love. I certainly didn’t want to lose my grandparents. Nonetheless, saying goodbye is inevitable. So, this task isn’t necessarily about actively doing anything. Instead, embracing this task is about an attitude toward life. It involves accepting and acknowledging the reality that everything eventually comes to an end. Although this may sound depressing, it also lends vibrancy and urgency to the other tasks. It reminds us not to wait to do them.

In my own career as a psychologist, I’ve worked extensively with patients facing the end of their lives. I’ve suggested these five tasks to many people. But I’ll never forget one patient’s half-joking remark: “I get cancer, and now they tell me how to live!” Indeed, there’s great benefit to living like we’re dying. Why wait to heal relationships? Why wait to let go of pain and forgive? Why wait to count our blessings? Why wait to show how much we care?

Acknowledging that all of us must eventually say goodbye could lead to a better, more satisfying life today. This simple realization may be the last and most precious gift my grandparents have given me.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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