by J.D. Roth
For the next year at More Than Money, we’re going to have a conversation about how to obtain personal and financial independence. To begin, I want to talk about death.
Australian singer-songwriter Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care for many years, spending time with men and women who were about to die. As she nursed her patients, she listened to them describe their fear, anger, and remorse. She noticed recurring themes.
In 2009, Ware wrote about her experience in a blog post that went viral. She turned that article into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. When people die, she says, they often express one or more of the following sentiments:
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People (especially men) often find themselves trapped on what economists call the “hedonic treadmill”. They work to achieve material wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. Instead, they want more. So, they work harder to achieve even greater wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. And so on, in an endless cycle. People trapped on the hedonic treadmill are never happy because their reality never meets their ever-increasing expectations.
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” In order to keep the peace and avoid rejection, we sometimes bottle our emotions inside. But refusing to be open and honest leads to a life of quiet desperation. Sure, the barista at the coffeehouse might laugh if you ask her to dinner; it’s also possible that dinner could lead to the love of a lifetime. On your deathbed, you’ll regret the things you didn’t say and do far more than the things you’ve done.
- “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” In Aging Well, George Vaillant summarizes more than fifty years of Harvard research into adult development. “Successful aging [is] best achieved in relationship,” he writes. “It is not the bad things that happen to use that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” In The Blue Zones, his book about populations of people that live longer than most, Dan Buettner writes that two secrets to a long and healthy life are making family a priority and finding the right “tribe”. At the end of their lives, people who failed to foster friendships regret it. (Here’s my summary of The Blue Zones.)
Common attributes among Blue Zones
- “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” Happiness is a choice. Your well-being doesn’t depend on the approval or opinion of others. Happiness comes from one place and one place only: You. Because this idea is key to personal and financial success (and because it’s so well-documented in happiness research), we’ll discuss it at length in the months to come.
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.” Ware says this regret is most common of all. “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it,” she writes, “it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.” We spend too much time doing the things that others expect of us. (Or the things we think are expected of us.) But living for the approval of others is a trap. We can never hope to please everyone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to please anyone – other than yourself.
These regrets share a common theme. In each case, the dying lament having spent too much time seeking outside approval instead of focusing on their own feelings, values, and relationships. This is true regardless of wealth and social status.
Ware is not a nurse and she’s not a scientist – her observations are based on experience, not empirical data – but, from my reading, her conclusions match the research into happiness and human development.
Money can’t buy happiness – at least not directly. Money is a powerful tool, it’s true. Abused, it brings sorrow and suffering. Used wisely, it opens doors, delivers dreams, and fosters joy. Although wealth is no guarantee of well-being, the more money you have, the easier it becomes to flourish.
The bottom line: You don’t want to be rich – you want to be happy.
On your deathbed, you want to have lived a life without regret. To do that, you need to face and defeat your fears. You need to find joy in day-to-day activities, and then use that happiness as a platform to procure passion and purpose. And you need to forge freedom, both personal and financial.
This blog will show you how. Over the next year, we’ll explore each of these topics, and we’ll discuss specific strategies to improve your life. I’ll share what I know, and I hope that you’ll share your knowledge and experience too.
Updated: 06 January 2014