don’t regret your life

A little while back, Andrew Sullivan posted on some of the most important research one can imagine. Bronnie Ware, a palliative care provider, interviewed terminal patients. She asked people what they regret. The most common answers:

  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.

Very wise. A few comments: Ware notes that all men wanted to work less. People wonder why I keep a goofy schedule, teaching once a week all day. Simple answer: more time for baby! I can always write another grant or article, but once my baby grows up – poof!

Some commenters had problems with #5 – how could you not let yourself be happy? I think people build up emotions that prevent happiness. For example, when I was in graduate school, I often obsessed about work even when I was on vacation. But over the years, I learned to do what I want with whom I want and not to care about what people think. Not caring about what other people think is an important life skill. Just relax as much as you can and enjoy life.

Written by fabiorojas

September 20, 2011 at 12:50 am

4 Responses

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  1. This is “the most important research one can imagine” only in a culture that has banished its poets, stopped listening to its own songs. That a survey of the top death-bed regrets (which, predictably, turn out to be utter clichés) might pass as wisdom in some circles, should here only speak to poverty of social science. But, unfortunately, the view is widely held because social science itself has systematically undertaken to dominate our vision of the kinds of beings we are. (It did it with a good deal of help from outside science.)

    I’ll offer another example:

    As late as 1939, Dexter Kimball was able to write, without any irony (at least visible to me) that “under the old and still much-used methods, the common idea was to keep a man as busy as possible during the the entire working for he had engaged. It now apears that he will do more and better work if given periodic rests.” (Principles of Industrial Organization, §147)

    I’ll repeat that: “It now appears…” Likewise, in 2011 it has become apparent to social science that “to thine own self be true” has some validity. A bit like discovering the “wisdom” of giving a working man some rest to recover his strength. Or not gouging your own eyes out with a fork. We know!

    This kind of science just makes me sad. The five regrets that are listed here are obvious. We all try to avoid them every day. It’s a struggle that our best poems, and the world’s single most famous play, have, famously, helped us to face for centuries. Science does nothing here but remind us of how sad we are.

    Even to ask a dying man what he regrets in life, you know, “for science”! I think Ezra Pound had it right in the “Wisdom of Poetry”: “‘To thine own self be true …’ were nothing if not spoken by Polonius, who has never called his soul his own.” The same of course goes for the official wisdom of science. It’s comic.

    Read your poets, America! Stop being surprised at your unhappiness. It’s old news. “Literature,” by contrast, “is news that stays news.” But, yeah, I can see the normative implications of this “most important” study are profound indeed: Relax. Enjoy life. The people thanks you.



    September 20, 2011 at 8:42 am

  2. Thomas, how very well said! Love it!


    orgtheory reader

    September 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  3. Robin Hanson had a rather different take on this topic:

    Long time reader, first time commenter on orgtheory (just happened to be on this post).



    September 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  4. […] don’t regret your life ( […]


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