Living Without Regrets: The Five Essential Lessons of the Dying

In the whirlwind of modern life, it's easy to get lost, to drift away from our true aspirations, and to lose sight of what really matters. Sometimes it's by watching the end that we truly understand the journey.

The Australian Nurse Bronnie Ware, after spending years alongside terminally ill people, shared the five most common regrets she heard from those about to leave. These regrets, far from being gloomy, are a real invitation to rethink our choices and fully embrace life.

Here is a perspective that I hope will inspire you for the future! 🙂

Context of the Book

Before working in palliative care, Bronnie Ware was like most of us, living her life without necessarily taking the time to reflect on the deep regrets one might have at the end of one's life.

It wasn't until she found herself at the bedside of many terminally ill patients that she realized the recurrence of certain emotions and thoughts. These patients, faced with the inevitability of death, needed to share their thoughts, their failed hopes and their unfulfilled dreams.

It was seeing the regret in the eyes of her patients that Bronnie Ware was inspired to share these stories to remind each of us of the importance of living life to the fullest.

Before we dive into those regrets, let's explore the psychology behind this topic.

The Psychology of Regret

Regret is one of the most complex and pervasive human emotions. It is an emotional (related to feelings), cognitive (related to thinking) and neural (related to brain function) response to past choices, which are perceived as bad choices relative to other options available or possible.

A question may arise here, (it was my case), so you might as well start there!

What is the difference between regret and remorse?

Regret and remorse are two terms that both evoke a negative reaction to a past action or decision made, but they have distinct nuances:

EmotionRegretRemorse
DescriptionRegret is an emotion felt when one recognizes or realizes that the current situation would be better or different if we had made another decision in the past.Remorse is deeper and more intense than regret. It's an emotion painful which stems from the recognition of having committed a fault or a reprehensible act, often accompanied by a feeling of guilt.
CharacteristicIt is often associated with a simple disappointment or a wish that things had turned out differently.It is linked to a moral or ethical transgression, where a person realizes that they have caused harm to others or to themselves.
ExampleOne might regret having missed an important meeting or having chosen one dish over another in a restaurant.One might feel remorse after lying to a loved one or after committing a harmful action towards someone.

In summary, while regret is often linked to if only " concerning personal choices, remorse is associated with a deep guilt due to harmful acts.

Let us now return to our psychology of regret.

Origins and functions of regret

From an evolutionary perspective, regret probably emerged as a mechanism to avoid making the same mistakes again. It encourages us to reflect on our actions, learn from our mistakes and plan better for the future.

neal roese, an expert in the psychology of regret, has suggested that this emotion has an adaptive function.

It pushes us to adapt, re-evaluate and make more informed decisions in the future.

(Roese, NJ, & Summerville, A. (2005). What we regret most… and why. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(9), 1273-1285.)

The different types of regret

Regrets can be classified according to their duration:

  • Immediate regrets: These are quick reactions to a decision or behavior and are often temporary.

After sending an impulsive and hurtful message to a friend during an argument, you reread your words and immediately feel deep regret for not taking the time to think before hitting send.

  • Long-term regrets: These regrets persist and can influence our future choices and our view of ourselves.

After giving up an opportunity to study abroad for fear of the unknown, a decade later you feel lingering regret realizing all the experiences and personal growth you missed out on.

Regrets can also be active or passive:

  • Active regrets: They stem from actions we have taken that we wish we hadn't done.

After deciding not to attend your best friend's wedding because of a minor dispute, you actively regret your choice when you hear how special the event was and how much your absence was felt.

  • Passive regrets: They result from things we haven't done, but wish we had done.

Have you always wanted to learn to play the piano? The years pass and, caught up in the rhythm of life, you never take the time to take classes. One day, sitting at a musical performance, you feel a passive regret that you never pursued that passion.

The effects of regret

Regret can have a variety of impacts on our well-being:

  • On a cognitive level: It can lead to rumination, where the individual constantly thinks about the regrettable decision or action.

During an important exam at university, you decide not to study a specific chapter, thinking that it was not essential. On the day of the exam, a large part of the questions relate to this chapter.

Following this failure, you constantly ruminate on this bad decision, questioning your judgment and your ability to make decisions, which affects your self-confidence in other areas of your life.

  • On an emotional level: Regrets can cause sadness, anxiety, and even depression when deep and persistent.

After a verbal altercation, you say harsh words to a loved one, and they abruptly cut off all contact with you. Despite your attempts to apologize, he refuses to talk to you.

Every time you think about that person or event, intense emotional pain, sadness, and guilt overwhelm you, affecting your mood and your ability to interact calmly with others in your daily life.

  • On the behavioral level: Regrets can influence our future choices, sometimes in a positive way (avoiding making the same mistake again) or negatively (avoiding certain situations altogether out of fear).

After getting into the habit of regularly postponing your sports sessions on the pretext of lack of time or fatigue, you notice weight gain and a decline in your physical fitness.

This leads you to avoid situations where you might be judged on your appearance or stamina, such as avoiding family gatherings, going to the beach, or even turning down invitations to social events. This regret directly influences your behaviors and social interactions.

Dealing with Regret

How we deal with our regrets is crucial. Rumination and self flagellation are common, but they are not productive. Rather than getting bogged down in regret, it can be more helpful to adopt a learning perspective.

After starting a small business without doing thorough market research, it fails to attract enough customers and eventually goes bankrupt. Rather than dwelling on regret and disappointment, you decide to use this experience as a valuable lesson.

You go back to school to take a course in entrepreneurship and business management. Armed with this new knowledge and previous experience, you start a new venture, this time with the proper preparation, turning your initial regret into an opportunity for learning and growth.

Studies have shown that reinterpreting unfortunate situations – focusing on what was learned rather than what was lost – can help alleviate the negative feelings associated with regret. (Markman, KD, & Miller, AK (2006). Depression, control, and counterfactual thinking: Functional for whom? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 210-227.)

In conclusion, regret is a universal emotion that has roots deep in our psyche. Although it is often seen as negative, it also has adaptive qualities which, when properly channeled, can help us grow and evolve.

The 5 regrets

1. Live Authentically

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

This first regret reminds us how essential it is to follow our own dreams and aspirations. How many times have we set aside our desires to please others or out of fear of judgment?

Our lives are punctuated with expectations – those of our parents, of society, of our friends, and even our own. The danger is to get lost in these expectations, to follow a path traced by someone else, to the detriment of our deepest desires. Living for others can often mean dying inside.

Take the example of Clara, a talented woman in painting, who always dreamed of opening her own art gallery. However, under pressure from her family, she chose a more “secure” career in accounting. She never really realized her dream.

Reflection to ponder :
Am I living my life, or the life others want me to live?

2. Look for theBalance at Work

I regret having worked so hard.

This regret is commonly expressed by men, who have often felt they have missed their children's youth or their partner's company because of work. A work-life balance is crucial for a fulfilling life.

Today's world values professional success, often at the expense of personal life. It is only in the fall of their lives that many realize that the hours spent in the office have overshadowed the precious moments with their loved ones.

The quest for success and stability is laudable, but at what cost? Time is our most precious asset, and once it's gone, it never comes back.

Thought to ponder:
Do my work hours interfere with the priceless time I could spend with my loved ones?

3. Express one's feelings

I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

Many regret not having spoken when it mattered. Whether it's declaring love, resolving conflict, or simply saying how we feel, expressing our feelings is liberating.

Fear of rejection, conflict, or judgment can often prevent us from saying what we really feel. By keeping everything inside, we create barriers between ourselves and others. Whether it's unspoken love or an unspoken apology, those things left unsaid can become heavy burdens to bear.

Expressing our feelings, whether it's love, regret or disappointment, takes courage. But it is also what allows us to live fully, without the heaviness of what is left unsaid.

Reflection to ponder :
Are there things I didn't say for fear of judgment or rejection?

4. Cherish Friendship

I would have liked to keep in touch with my friends.

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, maintaining strong bonds with our friends can be a challenge. However, at the end of life, it is not material possessions that count, but human relationships.

Friends are the witnesses of our life. They celebrate our joys, support us in our sorrows, and share our adventures. Over time, we sometimes forget the precious bonds that offer comfort in difficult times.

Reflection to ponder :
Have I let valuable relationships fade over time?

5. Choose Happiness

I would have liked to allow myself to be happier.

Happiness is often a decision. Some realize too late that they could have chosen to focus on joys rather than fears or worries.

Happiness is often thought of as a destination, but in reality it is a journey. Many spend their lives waiting for happiness in the “future” – after a promotion, after retirement, or after some other significant event.

Happiness is close at hand, in the little everyday moments, if we choose to see it and embrace it.

Thought to ponder:
Do I seek happiness in the future, or do I enjoy it here and now?

Conclusion

It is deeply human to want to give meaning to his life, to seek avoid regret. Bronnie Ware's testimonies show us that, whatever our culture, our social background or our beliefs, we all share fundamental aspirations : to love, to be loved, to fulfill oneself, to be happy.

Ultimately, these regrets are not just reflections of how the dying feel, but a mirror in which we can all see ourselves. It's an opportunity to pause, re-evaluate our priorities, and ensure that we live each day with intention, gratitude, and love. The beauty of life is that it's never too late to change course, to embrace what really matters, and to live without regrets.

I therefore invite you to take this moment to reflect, review your choices and fully embrace the wonderful adventure that is life! 🙂

For further :

  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It explores the author's search for meaning in life and his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. An exploration of vulnerability and how it can transform our lives.
  • Bronnie Ware's TED Talk. For a direct discussion with the author and her observations.

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Olivier MY

Olivier MY

Trained as an engineer and passionate about people, I quickly turned to the world of Agile coaching and Professional coaching. Today, I support individuals, teams and organizations towards creating value adapted to the constraints and challenges of today's world. I am committed to contributing to the professionalization of the profession, in particular through detailed feedback and inspirations highlighting the importance of an open, curious and respectful posture.

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