The Biggest Life Regret of Dying Hospital Patients

Bronnie Ware is a nurse who has spent more than a decade consulting terminally ill hospital patients. Over the years, she has heard countless people on their deathbeds confess their biggest life regrets.

A few years ago she wrote an article that shared the top five regrets of the dying. The number one regret was:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

She shares:

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

Why Do Dreams Go Unfulfilled?

Perhaps most dreams go unfulfilled because many people never find the time or space they need to fully pursue their interests and passions. To understand why this is the case, it’s helpful to read the second most common regret of the dying:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Bronnie shares:

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

People spend much of their lives, as Bronnie says, on the “treadmill of a work existence”, never able to gain freedom over their time to pursue a lifestyle they truly want.

It doesn’t have to be like this, though. There is a way to gain freedom over your time and pursue a life that you won’t regret having lived on your deathbed. You simply need to understand a couple important concepts from psychology and make a couple financial tweaks.

The Spotlight Effect

The “spotlight effect” is the tendency to think that more people notice something about you than they actually do. Virtually all of us fall prey to this tendency.

We think that our coworkers and bosses are watching us more closely than they actually are.

We think that our social media followers keep track of our behavior much more closely than they actually do.

We think that people notice the stuff we own more than they really do.

We all think we’re the center of the universe, which is why we often overestimate our own importance. And this usually leads to lifestyle upgrades in an attempt to impress those around us.

The Rich Man in the Car Paradox

Sadly, most of our material purchases (houses, cars, clothes, watches, gadgets, etc.) don’t actually receive the attention that we’d like from our peers. Morgan Housel explains why, using the “Rich Man in the Car Paradox”:

“When you see someone driving a nice car, you rarely think, Wow, the guy driving that car is cool. Instead, you think, Wow, if I had that car people would think I’m cool. Subconscious or not, this is how people think.

The paradox of wealth is that people tend to want it to signal to others that they should be liked and admired. But in reality those other people bypass admiring you, not because they don’t think wealth is admirable, but because they use your wealth solely as a benchmark for their own desire to be liked and admired.”

So, Person A buys some object to impress persons B, C, and D. But when persons B, C, and D see person A with that object, they aren’t impressed by person A at all because they’re too busy picturing themselves owning that object and imagining all of the attention that might come from it.

This means that purchasing things purely to gain approval and attention from others is a flawed strategy.

We can use this insight to our advantage. Whether we’re purchasing something big like a house or something small like a wrist watch, we should be thinking about utility, not attention.

If a certain purchase will add real value to our lives, we should feel fine about purchasing it. But if we’re buying something purely to gain the attention, approval, and admiration from our peers, we’re participating in a game that we can’t win.

Making the Right Financial Tweaks

The way to jump off the “treadmill of a work existence” is to align our financial habits with the lifestyle we would like to lead.

If we want more freedom to spend time with loved ones and do work we actually find meaningful, we need to create a gap between our income and expenses to obtain financial flexibility.

Bronnie Ware suggests:

“By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.”

The best way to reduce spending is to live within our means. This means living in homes that suit our needs, driving cars that reliably get us from one place to another, and spending exclusively on things that brings us value or joy. By doing so, we can save and invest more of our income and work our way towards financial flexibility at a quicker pace.

Define “Enough”

Define what is enough and don’t waste time or energy in pursuit of things that add no value. By doing so, you’ll gain more freedom over your time and be able to live a life that you won’t regret on your deathbed.

As Vicki Robin says,

“He who knows he has enough is rich.”

And as Derek Sivers says,

“The quickest way to double your income is to halve your expenses.”

Recognize that you can gain freedom over your time by getting your financial life in order. Realize that you’re not as important as you think and that most people aren’t watching you as closely as you believe they are. Then choose to spend exclusively on things that add value and joy to your life. Save and invest the rest of your income. Then use that financial freedom to live a life you won’t regret.

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