This is the second post in my series on the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying”. I’m counting down from #5 to #1 in order to better answer the question “how do I create a fulfilling life?”. I plan to get to the root of two things:
1. The WHAT: the clues each regret gives us as to what the most important factors are in achieving a fulfilling life.
2. The HOW: the actions that can be taken to accomplish those factors.
This series is based on a study that was originally done by Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse who for years stayed with patients during the last weeks of their lives. You can check out the original post on her website www.inspirationandchai.com.
The Top 5 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 didn’t work 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.
Regret #4: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
At this point you’ve probably figured out that none of the top 5 regrets are going to be easy to get through. This regret especially hit home for me. I let so many great friendships slip away over the years. To quote Bronnie Ware on this regret:
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. 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.
It’s common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
The most powerful part of this regret is the realization that comes with it: our relationships are what matter most in life. And based on Bronnie Ware’s study, a lot of us don’t realize this until it’s too late.
There’s been quite a bit of research done with regards to the power of relationships and the importance they hold in our lives. The Grant Study- an incredible 72-year old study started at Harvard university- was a study of the lives of 268 men from their time at Harvard until their deaths (Yes, 72 years isn’t a typo). George Vaillant took over as director of the study in 1966 and made it his life’s work. He had this to say on the findings:
In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Our relationships, the connections we have with others, are perhaps the single most important thing in life. Brene Brown is a researcher on all things to do with connection: authenticity, shame, vulnerability and courage. Her TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most popular TED talks ever. In it she had this to say about connection:
Because, by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is neurobiologically- that’s how we’re wired- it’s why we’re here.
What have we learned about this regret? And how can we apply it?
The WHAT: (Maintain) Healthy Relationships
This one is easy, maintaining healthy relationships is clearly a pillar if not THE pillar of importance in achieving a fulfilling life and altogether avoiding this regret. And how exactly do we maintain healthy relationships?
The HOW: Stay connected. Nurture and appreciate those relationships.
Staying Connected: …is half the battle. It’s as simple as that. You can stay in contact through various means but really Facebook (or another social media choice you prefer) is the ultimate relationship management tool. No other communication tool works better and none fits the busy modern lifestyle like Facebook does. When I was first introduced to the top five regrets, in order to right the wrong of having neglected so many great friendships over the years, I decided to use Facebook. Or rather, Facebook was all I could use because I had no other way of contacting most of the people I wanted to reconnect with.
It’s possible that far fewer people will hold this regret in the future because of the way social media now connects us. It’s not definite and in certainly no way did I think that using Facebook was going to be the same as deeply connecting with my friends or family in person, but it is a really useful tool that helps us stay in contact which is the starting point in maintaining healthy relationships and making this regret a thing of the past.
This topic could be a few blog posts in itself. For now though I’d like to keep it simple and just go over a few ways you can immediately begin to improve the relationships in your life:
1. Show appreciation. Send a message to someone either thanking them for something they did or telling them why you’re thankful for their friendship.
You can do this however you prefer: send a text or e-mail, write a letter or tell them in person. This is a double whammy, it’s not only scientifically proven to make you happier but your friend or loved one will feel the effects too.
2. Give your undivided attention to one conversation a day.
This is Buddhist mindfulness at work. I want you to give your full focus to one conversation a day. NO checking your phone while that person is talking to you, NO thinking about anything other than the topic at hand and give full eye contact through the entire course of the conversation. Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, had this to say on multitasking and giving your full attention in conversation:
Research on multitasking has shown that the human brain is insufficient when it comes to attending to simultaneous tasks. Studies have found that when we don’t give someone our full attention, we make more errors in communication and others tend to judge us more harshly. Giving someone your full attention lets the other person know that you care, and that they’re worth your time and attention.
(You can read the full article on zestnow.com.)
3. Develop compassion for others by adopting the belief that there’s a reason behind every action.
The next time a friend or family member (or anyone for that matter) does something that doesn’t please you or that you don’t understand take a step back and ask yourself “There’s a reason behind every action, I just have to find it. Why would they do this?”. By adopting the belief that there is a reason behind every action you begin to understand others better.
It’s a very simple exercise but one that allows you to cultivate compassion for others. Most of the time you won’t actually be able to answer the question because you didn’t grow up with the person nor are you with them 24/7, but the trick is, when you at least think of possibilities something magical happens- you stop feeling resentment towards the person and start feeling compassion. When you understand someone better you immediately treat them with more compassion and then the gates open to creating more and deeper friendships because simply: understanding leads to compassion.
I’d like to end by mentioning
that one of the best ways to nurture your relationships is to open up to yourself first. This can be a difficult but greatly rewarding process. Brene Brown had this to say on a group she calls the “Whole-hearted”:
And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and- this was the hard part- as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.
I can only imagine what it must be like to be sitting on your deathbed knowing you have no way of finding an old friend just to tell them you love and appreciate them. We should be grateful our world is so connected now.