How to live Less Regret

How to live Less Regret

We all want to live happy, fulfilled lives. We wish for great careers where we can feel productive as well as great relationships in our personal life, and we strive to have a positive impact on the world. However, something often gets in the way of fulfilling on all these premises. According to our research, mainly responsible for falling short on fulfilling on all these goals are those Last 8% moments – the moments that challenge us and we perceive as taxing and often daunting. This can mean taking on a new challenge, making an important career decision – maybe this is even a conflict between what you really want to do and what others are expecting of you or advising you to do. It can also be about leaving a relationship that isn’t working for you although you know this decision will hurt you in the short term. It seems easier to stay away from those moments or avoid making tough decisions, but there is a lot at stake. Often we don’t recognize their importance until it’s too late.

Regret is the most common human emotion at the end of life

Regret is a powerful and devastating emotion, and the most powerful tool in order to avoid it is self-awareness. Without it, we might end up living a life that doesn’t match our intent or our aspirations, we may miss the things we truly long for – which in return may manifest as regret.

Bronnie Ware, a long time palliative care worker and author of the bestseller “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” wrote about her observations with patients whose end of life was immanent: “People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.”

Whilst this is comforting to know, one of the most common emotions she found in her patients however, was in fact regret. When asked, what they would have done differently in life, there were five answers that surfaced again and again. Let’s have a closer look at those top five regrets:

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

According to Bronnie Ware, this was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and reflect back on it, it becomes clear how many of their dreams have gone unfulfilled. 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.

How to avoid this regret

Look inside and reflect on what is true for you. Are you always driven by what others may think or expect of you? Are you usually following what your parents, your partner, your kids or your boss want you to do? Making decisions based on the expectations of others – may it be to be liked and acknowledged by them or to avoid their disappointment – is a losing formula. It doesn’t allow you to be effective or happy, and it doesn’t lead to living a meaningful life. Instead, you need to find what excites you, makes you feel alive, is meaningful to you – even if you face the disagreement or disapproval of others. This is what we call facing those Last 8% moments.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

This regret was stated by every single male patient Ware nursed. They had missed out on their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, however it was mostly the men she nursed who deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the hamster wheel of work.

How to avoid this regret

In many cases, we are not even aware of how much of our time we spend working, we see it as part of our duty or responsibilities, and often it is closely tied to regret #1 – the expectations our boss or colleagues have of us or what we believe is demanded of us in order to fulfill on our job obligations and meet the standards of an organization. Again, self-awareness is key, and knowing we have a choice in the matter.

During the 2020 pandemic, where we have so often been faced with “last 8%” moments, this has become increasingly challenging, because many people worked from home and no longer had a physical separation between private life and workplace. Many activities outside of our jobs came to a halt, so we were even more available for work, a healthy social life as balancing factor was greatly diminished as well. Many companies faced a crisis and employees felt compelled to put in more work, feeling guilty when juggling their family matters around their jobs. It’s important to know there is no right or wrong to this, it’s just a matter of consciously choosing. It is okay to work more, as long as the work engagement isn’t driven by what we think we “should” do, what is expected of us. Not just during the Covid-19 crisis, it is a great practice at any time to examine our lifestyles and evaluate whether we need to make as much money as we thought in order to live happy and content, and what other, non-monetary factors could contribute to those feelings.

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

Looking back at their lives, many of Bronnie Wares patients also stated they suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Instead, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many even developed illnesses that related to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

How to avoid this regret

This is really about Last 8% conversations. So many of us avoid them, thinking it would lead to conflict and broken relationships. It can be scary to address topics that may upset someone we care for or want to be recognized by. Yet it is often exactly those tough conversations that allow for breakthroughs in our relationships opposed to a breakdown. Talking it out in general fosters healthier, more honest and stronger relationships when it happens from a place of self-awareness opposed to mere accusations. The relationships that don’t hold up to authentic, open conversations may not even be the ones you want – and you get to choose consciously whether you want to stay or walk away from them, which again requires the self-awareness whether they truly serves you. Without that component, it is easy to fall back into pre-disposed behaviour patterns – and as long as we act the way we have always acted, we will always end up with the results we have always gotten.

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

Another phenomenon observed in the palliative care patients was that they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks, when it was not always possible anymore to track them down and reconnect with them. Often people had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let those golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friends the time and effort that they deserved, and most patients missed them painfully when they were dying.

How to avoid this regret

This one also ties in closely to the other regrets. We get too busy with life and work, often driven by obligations and expectations of others, without being aware what matters and what we are truly missing. Self-awareness and reflection helps us to get present to what is really important to us, and can prevent us from letting those cherished friendships fall wayside. It may take effort to make the time and keep in touch, but it will always feel rewarding and invigorating when we do.

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

This is surprisingly a very common realization towards the end of life, and many people didn’t recognize until then that happiness is simply a choice to make. Old patterns and habits may keep us from finding happiness within, always hoping that outer factors or reached goals will make us happy. Often we also confuse the feeling of “comfort” that comes from familiarity and overflows our existence with true happiness, telling ourselves and others we are “content” so we can avoid taking the uncomfortable, often scary step to make changes.

How to avoid this regret

Ask yourself how long you have been longing for those deep belly-laughs, for more fun or even silliness, to feel fully alive? We need to develop a deep understanding that our life is our choice. That’s why we need to make Last 8% conversations and moments a daily practice, so we can remind ourselves to control the things we can and let go of what we cannot control. Self-awareness is at the heart of this choosing, without it, we simply continue to resort to our patterns and act according to our predictable default way. It allows us to choose consciously and wisely, to take bold actions and be courageous. It also allows us to choose happiness at any moment from within ourselves.

Do you easily avoid challenging conversations, or are you someone who makes a mess of them? Take your personality quiz to find out!