Aging and Satisfaction: Life Lessons from “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”

An elderly couple sits on a beach.
As we grow older, the important things in life get clearer — like spending quality time with loved ones, and not working too hard!
Image source: Hector Alejandro via wikimediacommons.org

It can be easy to live day-to-day without putting too much thought into our overall happiness. One of the most valuable gifts that old age offers is a greater sense of perspective and clarity: we become more inclined to focus on the deep, meaningful aspects of life. When we’re younger, it’s easy to get tangled up in superficial fluff — money, appearances, material goods, and prestige appear shiny and alluring. As we age, it’s like the curtain is slowly pulled away, revealing to us what really matters.

It’s oft lamented that by the time we grow wise, we’re too old to do much about it. And while it’s never too late to become who we want to be, it’s also true that we can seek wisdom at any age. In particular, we can make a point of learning from our elders’ invaluable experiences.

One woman has gone above and beyond this, to our immense collective benefit. Over the course of her professional career caring for patients in palliative care, and helping them through their final weeks, Australian nurse Bronnie Ware has done something remarkable. She’s taken the time to compile her patients’ view-points on universal subjects like regret, life purpose, and happiness. From the plethora of responses emerged five themes common to almost all of Ware’s patients. Ware assembled these reflections in her insightful book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which teaches us how to feel more fulfilled in life, in addition to helping us to better understand our elderly loved ones.

A woman's reflection in a mirror amidst a sea of sunglasses.
When we’re young, we tend to view life through rose-tinted glasses, favoring life’s surface appeal over its deeper meaning.
Photo by Kimberly Bryant.

Top Five Regrets 

Let’s take a look at some of the wisdom gleaned from Ware’s patients’ primary regrets in life.

1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Ware’s patients shared that when they looked back on their lives, they regretted making choices about how they lived just to please other people. Living life authentically requires strength and courage. It’s no secret that it can feel easier to toe the party line, make decisions that don’t rock the boat, and stay small. But it’s even harder to realize that, at the end of the day, you haven’t lived life for yourself. Remember, it’s never too late to start being true to ourselves. What can you do today to honor your authentic self?

2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

This was a universal regret of all of Ware’s male patients: they wished that had spent more quality time with their families, instead of logging in more hours at the office. While Ware’s female patients also felt this way, most of them were from the generation where the men had been the breadwinners in the household. Since there is now greater opportunity for both men and women to have full, vibrant careers, we all need to practice balancing our personal and professional lives more carefully.

3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

How many times in your life have you withheld your true emotions for the sake of avoiding a potentially uncomfortable confrontation? Most cultures around the world are based around the concept of saving face. On the whole, society teaches us to keep anger and sadness to ourselves, and hide thoughts that are difficult or scary; politeness is preferred over authenticity. And yet, two of the most life-enhancing tools we have at our disposal are a) having fierce conversations based on our true feelings, and b) holding ourselves accountable to being honest, regardless of how tough it feels.

4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”

Our lives inevitably grow more complex as the years go by. As our schedules get tighter, it’s easy for friendships to inadvertently fall by the wayside. From dealing with fatigue and illness, to familial responsibilities and general life stress, it’s both understandable and unfortunate that our friends end up getting the short shrift. However, age-old wisdom reminds us that friendship is one of the most valuable parts of life: our friends love us without any obligation to continue doing so; they reflect who we are as people, and who we hope to be.

5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Perhaps the most poignant of all the insights attained from Ware’s contemplative book is that happiness was (and is) a choice that everyone has the power to make. Rather than feel controlled by their circumstances — whether related to poor health, bad relationships, or harmful childhood experiences — Ware’s patients saw, at the end of their lives, that it had been up to them all along to take back their power, and choose their own happiness.

Moving forward with love

Ware summarizes much of her findings in the simple, yet profound, observation that “it all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks — love and relationships.”

Do any of these regrets strike a particular chord within you? Have you witness an aging loved one experiencing any of them? We’d love to hear in the comments.

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute of Aging is here to help with your decisions and offer guidance in gaining the best in at-home senior care. Contact us to find out more.

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