09/20/2012 12:17 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST

How to Avoid the Top Five Regrets of Dying


I love when readers reach out to me after reading one of my blog posts. Knowing that people reflected on something I've written, that it's given them pause, is a good feeling. So, when a recent reader shared this article titled the "Top five regrets of the dying," I was both moved and inspired (thank you, Cindy!)

Much as we're wrapped up in the day-to-day, most of us think about the big picture: what we want to achieve and what a "good life" really means to us. In recent years, it seems everybody has been talking about their bucket list -- that laundry list of things they want to do before they "kick the bucket." Of course, such lists can be inspiring and I can't read one without immediately thinking about what would be on my own list. But I also wonder about those lists. Is some thrill-seeking adventure like sky diving or bungee-jumping really the thing that's missing from our lives?

It seems to me that the reason we're not out rushing to do those things is because they're not really what's most important to us. A bucket list sometimes seems like a childlike fantasy for another life -- a life that's fearless, extreme and uninhibited, rather than a template for the life we really want to live now, or a list of aspirations that really hooks up to our own reality. We're not really going to regret not getting around to bungee-jumping on our deathbed, are we?

I think what we are likely to regret is lost love, not living in the moment, not understanding that happiness is a choice and that we should make a priority of finding the time to give and receive love: To love ourselves. To love others. To see each day as a gift, making that decision to love our lives now rather than living in a state of always looking forward to a day when we'll have the time, energy, money to be happy.

My feelings were confirmed by the article sent to me. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

The top five regrets, as witnessed by Ware were:

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.

I recently wrote a blog post about "how to become the best version of you" and things you can do to improve the grade you might give your life right now. In that post, I was very focused on the day-to-day, the week-to-week and living in the moment. But when I read Ware's list, I realized a common thread: Living happily in that day-to-day is the way to ensure you're not reaching the end of your years with regrets.

When I read the Ware article, I immediately sent it to some friends -- friends who (like we all sometimes do) are struggling to find joy in their lives, to give themselves permission to be happy. They instead believe that happiness is something that happens to other people, a lucky few who form a club they'll never be part of. They believe that romance will never work out for them, that life is about settling and that they'll never "arrive" at a time where they feel simple, unequivocal joy.

What they're not recognizing is the decision they're making to defer happiness to that fantasy rather than making it part of their everyday real lives. And sad as it is, this way of thinking is nearly a form of selfishness: an unwillingness to give, as well as receive love, to share joy, to be grateful for the wonderful life we can each choose for ourselves. If I sound passionate, it's because I feel strongly about this. When I read the list of regrets I imagined that I might feel some of them myself, or that people I care for might come to certain realizations too late.

This is important stuff to realize: life is not a dress rehearsal and it is a privilege. So often, we feel like life is something happening to us and -- of course -- there are many things that we can't control. But no person or event should dictate your overall sense of happiness, that's something you should make yourself the agent of. Or, as I wrote in another post, be your own director!!

Through the course of writing these posts, I've noticed these common themes and messages emerging, and that's a reassuring feeling. I believe it's a message that bears repetition. I know it's one that I have to repeat to myself as I get caught up in whirlwinds of work and life. All of this has helped me formulate some guiding principles for myself, to centre and ground myself in a very real way. In many ways, then, it's reinforcing that these posts seem to cohere and even overlap.

I love the idea that small steps and self-awareness are what keeps me on track. Because, although I'm sure I'll look back and regret some things, I don't want to regret the big picture.

xo Natasha