Top Five Regrets

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

The magical John Hotowka is speaking at an IAM event in Liverpool in February and the subject of Achievement Thinking reminded me of a thought-provoking, if somewhat morbid, book from a few years ago.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, specifically caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She initially recorded their dying thoughts and feelings in a blog called Inspiration and Chai. This proved to be so popular that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

According to Ware, here are the top five regrets of the dying:

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

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

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

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

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

John’s talk covers some of the thinking and strategies required to address these five issues, and we’d like to support that with some thoughts of our own.

The Importance of Integrity

Integrity is a value, like persistence, courage, and being disciplined. It is your choice of values and your resolve to live by those values that form your character. Integrity is a very important value in that your integrity enhances all your other values. This is because the type of person you are is determined by how well you live up to the values that are most important to you. Integrity is the quality that locks in your values and is the measure of how consistently you live with them.

We all say we are honest and presumably want to be honest, but our integrity dictates how consistently we actually are honest. To demonstrate integrity we would be honest even if it will negatively affect us. This is different to being tactful. If we are careful with how we word something and the sole beneficiary of doing this is someone else then we are being tactful, if we are simply avoiding telling the truth because we think the recipient might be angry with us then we are acting without integrity. For example, if we are lying to our children about Santa Claus to increase their sense of joy and wonder at the magic of Christmas, then that is very different from not telling someone bad news because they might shout at us.

It has been said that integrity is the choice between what is convenient and what is right. Without wishing to reignite or prolong any Brexit debate (I know, I’m sorry) it is an excellent example of making a decision based on integrity. Irrespective of our view about remain and leave I assume we all wanted the MPs involved to make a decision based on what they believed was right rather than on what was convenient. My personal fear is that the longer it dragged on the more decisions were swayed based on convenience.

Here’s another way to look at integrity; it is behaving in a consistently principled manner no matter who is watching. Integrity is intrinsically motivated; it is self-imposed.  If we require an external motivation to behave with integrity, then we don’t have integrity. If you feel that this sounds ideological or impossible then you understand the concept. Just when you think you have mastered it, a greater test comes along.

Principled leaders conduct themselves with high ethical standards regardless of who is watching.  If no one is watching them they still behave the same as if everyone was watching.  Leaders with integrity don’t try to see what they can get away with.

For an even greater test of integrity simple replace the word ‘leader’ in the previous statement with the word ‘parent’. As C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” 

Why the discussion on integrity? I believe there are overlaps on that list of five from Bronnie Ware. I think the first one about being true to ourselves hinges on personal integrity and a healthy dose of self-awareness. Two subjects that have had extensive coverage under the banner of Emotional Intelligence in recent years.

I also think that not working so hard, expressing true feelings and letting ourselves be happy are all aspects of being true to ourselves.

Work-life balance

The ‘not working so hard’ issue was a regret of every man under the care of Bronnie Ware: every single one. This wasn’t expressed as a desire to not work hard it was to do with the amount of time away from their family, as Ware observed, “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

Based on the number of articles written about it, most of us seem to have gotten better at work-life balance, which this is alluding to. Ware also makes a point about health, something that is regularly impacted when we struggle with work-life balance; she says, “Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

Emotional Intelligence

Part of the definition of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is, ‘…the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions.’ The literature on EI is extensive and some of our most popular events cover this subject. The impact of neglecting our EI skills and competences can’t be under-estimated. As Ware states, “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

Obviously, and particularly in the workplace, this isn’t about giving voice to every emotion we feel however we feel like it expressing it. Constant bouts of rage, joy and passion would be tiring for all. Good emotional management also includes appropriateness. More than 2000 years ago Aristotle wrote, in his classic work The Art of Rhetoric, “ANYBODY can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

Another part of emotional intelligence, and linked to the fifth regret on the list, “I wish that I had let myself be happier”, is understanding that although it can be very difficult to change circumstances and situations we do have control over our response.

Again, Ware encapsulates this in her book, “”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise 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, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Choosing happiness is a paradoxical phrase; it really is that easy and it is simultaneously incredibly difficult. Most of us spend our whole life trying to work it out and to discuss it fully requires a whole series of articles. For me, I am a big fan of the following, written by Reinhold Neibuhr, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In some ways this gives another spin on emotional intelligence, and for me the crucial part is the bit about knowing the difference. Once I have been clear that I can’t change something I find it relatively easy to move on and stop worrying.

Connecting with Others

The only regret we haven’t mentioned is number four, I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Ware comments, “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. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

Once again, there are plenty of books and articles on the subject of connecting with others, and in particular the closest friendships. I’d like to discuss it in the context of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. We can’t do justice to this 80-year long, and counting, study but here are some of the findings.

Researchers who have pored through data, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires, found a strong correlation between people’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board.

Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, said Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And the loners often died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasised the role of relationships, and came to recognise the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Final Thoughts

Strangely, I find the book inspiring rather that depressing. I think it gives a timely reminder that we can make changes. I think most of it we already know about on some level, but we need these reminders when we get drowned in ‘busyness’.

Nearly all of us will have regrets when we die, but we can, at least, go some way to avoiding the five most common one if we:

  • Commit to integrity
  • Develop our Emotional Intelligence Skills
  • Invest in our relationships

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