It’s one of the biggest ironies in life, that many of us live our lives doings things we don’t really want to do, and neglecting things that are truly important to us, and only finally at the ends of our lives, look back and admit we wish we’d done it differently.
It isn’t a big surprise to most people, that on our deathbeds, most of us regret things like not spending enough time with family, or working too much and not having enough fun. We are, as educated adults, aware, even if we are living a life outwardly that makes it seem otherwise, that the most important things in life are family, love, health, and happiness.
Yet, even though we possess enough common sense to know this, many of us are unable to let go of the pursuit of things that often take us farther and farther away from what is truly important, and what we should value the most. Money, professional ‘success’ or promotions, buying more stuff, driving nicer cars, dressing in nicer clothes, filling up our 401ks – these things make us feel like we are accomplishing something during our lives. They allow us to say (if silently) ‘look at me, I’m successful! I’m responsible. I’m smart.’
Yet, while we pursue these things, we miss out on so many others. Like nieces and nephews birthday parties, time with our siblings, family holidays, vacations, intimate relationships.
Many of us now even spend a couple of decades working and casually dating (like so many of us 20s-30s who live in cities), instead of allowing ourselves to love (like we want to) because we are so addicted to just ‘putting the time in’ until we can fill our bank accounts with enough to make us feel safe, or get that next promotion so we can tell ourselves ‘we’ve made it’ far enough before we can allow ourselves to consider falling in love.
Soon, our work, our career, our goals become our identity and we can’t remember what it was like to relax and go spend a spontaneous weekend with family, or chat for hours on the phone with our mom, or to be in a real and meaningful relationship. We stop getting invitations to friend and family gatherings because people stop expecting there to be any chance of our showing up.
In order to remind ourselves what we should already be reminding ourselves of every day (what is important to us), let’s take a look at a list of the most common regrets people have when looking back on their lives:
1. Not having the courage to be true to ourselves
Most people regret not living a life more true to themselves, but instead feeling obligated to fulfill spoken or unspoken obligations to family, society, etc. They wish they had had more courage to do the things they wanted, instead of the things they felt they should do.
2. Remaining in an unfulfilling job or career instead of taking a risk and pursuing something we were passionate about
This sort of goes along with #1, but specifically has to do with where we choose to spend most of our lives. Since most of us work more than 40 hours a week and get only about 2 weeks of vacation per year, our careers and jobs are a HUGE part of our lives. If we spend the majority of our time doing something that we don’t like and that doesn’t fulfill us or challenge us, we are cheating ourselves out of what could be a much more meaningful life.
Let go of the image you want to present to the world (with your perfect job or title) and think about what you’d really be willing to do, if you could wake up every day excited about your job. Take a paycut? Live in a smaller house, or move out of the city? Give up the designer clothes and expensive lattes every day? What’s the value of feeling like your life has meaning and being happier?
3. Not spending more time with family
We all know that family should be the most important thing in our lives, so why do so many of us take it for granted until it’s too late? Say no to working late this week and eat dinner with your family. If you’re not married, call a sibling or your parents and see what they’re up to. If they live far away, schedule a Skype conversation. Look for airfare deals and plan an impromptu weekend home. Go fishing with your dad. Whatever. Just do it now instead of waiting until ‘one day’.
Our parents are going to leave this earth sooner than we are which means we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’ve retired to finally spend time with them. Siblings and offspring are around longer, sure, but they are only young for so long. Soon they’ll have their own families and like the Neil Young (Old Man) song, they might have as little time for you as you had for them when they wanted you around.
4. Not expressing our true feelings more
Not expressing our true feeling is something most of us regret during our lives, but even more so when we are closer to our deaths. Knowing that the regret is only going to get worse over the years, why not start making an effort now to tell those who are important to you how much they mean to you? Or telling someone you care about, that might not know it, how you feel? The worst outcome can’t be as bad as regretting what you didn’t do, on your death bed
5. Not keeping in touch with old friends
It’s tough keeping in touch with old friends sometimes. Especially if you live or work in different cities, states, or countries. Or if you’ve outgrown each other in some ways, or just have completely different lives. We might think we’ll always have a chance one day to reconnect, or maybe we just don’t think it’s that important because people naturally grow apart.
However, since this is at the top of the list of regrets for most of us at the end of our lives, we can assume that it’s an important one to be aware of. Why not reach out to an old friend via Facebook and just catch up? Plan to have coffee next time you’re in their city or vice versa. Plan a reunion weekend with a group of old friends. What do you have to lose?
6. Working too much/not having enough fun
People seem to really wish they had spent more time having fun, instead of working so many hours, or wasting time fulfilling obligations and doing meaningless things (streaming 50 hours of netflix per week? Probably not going to consider this a great use of time when you’re older). They wish they’d spent more time doing things that made them truly happy/gave them joy.
Hugged someone lately? Gone to the beach and wiggled your toes in the sand and played all day in the water and the sun? Taken a class on something you’ve always wanted to learn to do? Danced? Laughed? Let the wind and the smell of the forest invigorate you while you hike, run, or bike alone in nature? Every minute spent being happy is good for our health, and these moments are those that we will remember fondly. Why not make as many of them as possible?
7. Not traveling enough/Not taking enough vacations
This is big for us in America, as we just don’t have a lot of vacation time, and we have a culture built around the idea that working harder is better and being seen to work more hours makes you look good to your boss/bosses. But statistics prove that people aren’t more efficient, when they take fewer vacations/work more hours. They are in fact, less efficient. Excessive time working, will only be time you wish you had spent doing something of more personal value.
Figure out how to take more 3 day weekends (even if you have to take unpaid vacation), negotiate more vacation days per year, negotiate work from home days, so you can start your weekends earlier and avoid the ‘who’s still at their desk after 6pm’ game at your office. Set boundaries and stick to them. If your company doesn’t respect your need for a personal life, start working towards getting a new job, with a company that does.
In short: Don’t wait until you’re almost dead to start living.