How to Live a Regret-Free Life

Comments 21
Choose happiness. Choose love. Choose yourself.
Choose happiness. Choose love. Choose yourself.

You’re going to die.

Just like me.

It might be in 80 years.

It might be in 10.

It might be today.

Is there anything troubling you today that would matter on the last day of your life?

One of my Facebook friends posted this article yesterday. It was the first I’d seen it. It was written by a nurse who cares for dying patients. She takes those final days to talk with them about their lives. To ask them probing questions about what it all means. About their hopes and dreams and regrets. Then she took the five most common regrets mentioned by her dying patients and wrote them down.

I intend to spend a lot of time thinking about these.

I hope you will, too.

Live Like You’re Dying

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’” – Kurt Vonnegut 

Life’s biggest regrets? According to one lady who knew more dead people than most of us, these are the highlights:

1. Live a life true to yourself; not the life others expect of you. 

This was the big one, the nurse wrote. We make choices every day. How many do we make because other people want us to? How many do we make for ourselves?

How many of you chose a particular area of study because you were trying to please one of your parents? How many of you choose your job or where you live or your hobbies because of other people?

This is a big one. This idea. Being true to yourself. What if you have three children who depend on you? A spouse who loves you? Can you pack up and travel the world because that’s your dream? To go cave diving? Or minister to the poor? Or work on a fishing vessel? Or study at Oxford? Or work part time at a beachfront surf shop? Or own a boutique bakery?

It seems almost selfish. This message is best served on the young. And I hope any teenagers or young adults reading will really think about what it means to pursue your passions and dreams and not what you think other people expect you to be.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us “tied down” to families or children or mortgages or other dependents?

These are tough choices. Tough conversations to have. Especially if the people we surround ourselves with are unsupportive.

My favorite writer James Altucher doesn’t mess around. You’re either with him or against him. And if you’re against him, he cuts you out of his life. Life’s too short to surround yourself with energy takers, he said. He only spends time with people who lift him up. Who make him happy. And as a result, he’s happy.

Ruthless? Maybe. Impractical? I can see how you might think that. That was my initial reaction too. But then I just kept thinking about it.

What if I spend the rest of my life NEVER doing things I don’t want to do? And ALWAYS doing things I want to do with people I want to do them with?

What’s stopping me from making that choice?

I’m not sure there is anything. But do we have the courage to choose happiness? To choose ourselves?

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” – Henry David Thoreau

2. Don’t work so hard. 

This is one of my biggest crimes. Which will make some of you who know me, laugh. Matt? Work hard?!?! Hahahahaha! But I don’t really mean it in the context of how industrious or productive I am. I mean it more in terms of my mindset.

This was a common regret of husbands and fathers who toiled in careers their entire adult lives, missing their children’s entire upbringing, and often leaving their wives to fend for themselves.

It doesn’t mean don’t work hard. We absolutely should work hard in whatever it is we’re involved with. What it means, is maybe we don’t have our priorities straight. Maybe making thousands of extra dollars so your child can join ski club or wear LeBron’s newest shoes or live in the nicest neighborhood isn’t as valuable as simplifying your lives and “needs” so that you can give them more individual attention. So, instead of one weeklong vacation each year in some wonderful place, the family is together all the time. Growing together. Communicating. Feeling loved. Appreciated. Connected.

Maybe waking up EVERY SINGLE DAY and going to work just so we can have houses to sleep in and cars to drive to our jobs doesn’t make as much sense as so many of us have been programmed to think it does.

I’m not advocating being a bum. I’m not sure I’m prepared to start slashing luxuries in my life. I’ve always been more of a fan of acquiring more money.

However, does any of this shit matter if we’re going to die today? Does it?

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself that. Maybe it’s time to start ridding yourself of burdens you carry that won’t matter when you’re gone.

Or better yet. Maybe it’s time to start ridding yourself of burdens. Period.

Because 99 percent of the stuff that ails you will hardly be an afterthought in five years.

Stop wasting time.

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

3. Express your feelings courageously. 

This is the thing I’m learning how to do best in this new world I’m living in. I’m still MUCH more shy in person expressing feelings and showing courage, but I must say: Being as open and honest with you guys here as I try to be has really helped me show more courage when I’m looking someone in the eye. I’m not all the way there yet. But, give me time.

The truth is liberating.

And I don’t mean, spilling your secrets.

I just mean, being courageous.

You like that girl? Well, dammit, stop being a pansy. Go tell her.

Maybe you’ll get her. Maybe you won’t. I’m learning each day to give less of a shit about the bad things that might happen to me when I’m brave. And the good feelings I feel for being brave tend to offset any disappointment I might feel from an undesirable outcome.

The new me isn’t awesome. Not yet.

But as they say in the scouting athletes business, I have a lot of upside.

You do, too.

Say what you feel. Be as honest as you possibly can without hurting people.

That’s where peace lives.

That’s where happiness lives.

That’s where a regret-free life lives.

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball

4. Stay connected to friends.

I’m horrible at this sometimes. HORRIBLE. I wrote yesterday about being reclusive. And I have been lately as I try to reassemble all the scattered pieces of my life.

I love my friends. I love my friends more than they can or will ever understand because I can’t put them all in the same room and hug their faces in a world-record-breaking sweaty and really uncomfortable group hug.

But if you know me in real life, I love you. I do. And I appreciate you so much. And I’ll never be able to thank you properly for all the memories you’ve given me and all of the memories we’ll eventually get to make.

I might die before I see you again.

If that happens, I pray you’ll remember our friendship with fondness. And I pray you understand that my most precious memories unrelated to my closest family members revolve around you.

Yes, you.

Whether our interactions were few. Or whether you’re a fundamental part of my life.

Aaron. My best man. All those years. You’re family. Forever.

Z. You’re the best. Give me more time to figure this life out. I’ll be back.

SP. I’m probably not me without you. I’m probably an even bigger asshole. Thank you.

Ben and Andy. You anchor my other world. Love you guys.

Dani. I knew you for five minutes. But you were the pretty girl who let the new guy take you out once or twice. You don’t know how big of a deal that was to me.

SK. You’re my all-time favorite grumpy person.

O. My first friend in my hometown. Solid gold family. Solid gold man.

ATH2O. The next time I have a bad time with you will be the first. Same for you, RR.

Work people. You’re my now. You represent adult me. You keep me steady. Anchored. Balanced. Focused. All those hours we share together when we wish we were elsewhere. You make it more than tolerable. You make it pleasant. Appreciate you so much.

Florida people. You were the first life savers I ever met.

SC. I seriously had one of the best weeks of my life with you. Thank you.

CD. Remember when you got upset with me because a drunk girl named Jill crawled into my tent with me at Country Concert and you heard about it the next day? I swear, on my heart and soul, on the life of my son who is the very reason I live and breathe, that I didn’t so much as hold that girl’s hand. Because of you. Because you mattered.

If we went to grade school together, high school together (in Ohio or Illinois), college together (so many things I DON’T remember), or worked closely together, you can take to the bank that you matter to me. That I feel connected to you. That I’m sorry for any role I’ve played in any disconnection that now exists.

And if I die today, my biggest regret will be my failure to show you how much you matter.

The nurse wrote: “That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

Nothing matters more.

Focus on what matters.

It will be unselfish.

But you’ll really be doing it for yourself.

“A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.” – Charles Goodyear

5. Give yourself permission to choose happiness.

Give yourself permission to choose yourself. To be happy. To let go. To not give a shit what that person thinks. I worry SO MUCH about what people think of me. It’s likely my greatest personal weakness.

When you choose other people’s feelings about you over your own feelings about you, you always lose. Your life will be dissatisfying. You’ll constantly be chasing approval that doesn’t matter.

No one’s opinion of you matters except your own.

Today, you decide who you are. Not your friends at school. Not those people at work. Not those guys in the car next to you. Not your parents. Not people on television. Not your boyfriend. Not your wife. Not your kids.

Your past doesn’t define you.

If you’re the kind of person like me who chooses to behave sometimes out of fear of what others might think of you, then you have a bad habit.

Like smoking. Like eating poorly. Like biting your fingernails. Like belittling your spouse even when you’re “joking.” Like procrastinating.

Bad habits can be broken.

And I hope you’ll try to break this one. I’m going to try.

Because all I want in this world is happiness. I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what it looks like. It’s just a word. But it describes how I occasionally feel. And I choose to pursue that feeling. To pursue happiness. With vigor.

I choose myself. And I choose to feel good. Not shitty.

Sometimes I’ll succeed. Sometimes I’ll fail. But I’m going to keep trying.

Because practice makes perfect.

Because I know we can do it.

Because choosing happiness can be habit forming.

I make bad decisions.

But not all the time.

“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” – Oscar Wilde

21 thoughts on “How to Live a Regret-Free Life”

  1. Maybe I don’t have the same relationship with Altucher as you do, but his choices seem ruthlessly selfish and not suitable for society (note: you just told me everything I know about Altucher). It’s being true to himself, but maybe in a very narrow-minded way. Later you, for example, call out friends with history that sometimes include experiences beyond what you’d first think of as being true to you. That (what you did) sounds like being true to yourself AND fitting in with society. So, from what you’ve told me about Altucher, I’d pick you as wiser.

    As for #5, that sounds so easy, but, in practice it’s just HARD! The word ‘should’ is so loud in comparison: “I should suffer through this … “

    1. I’m sure I did James a huge disservice by writing what I did today.

      That guy exists to try to help people. And I love everything about his flawed, honest, sometimes-manic writing.

      You should read this:

      It’s his most-recent post. It’s funny and insightful.

      I think you would love this guy. You know, since you and I aren’t so different.

      1. I shall open my mind (Item H, I found out after I wrote that sentence!) and see what happens.

        Quick research showed that I had actually read his stuff when I was doing the whole internet investment fad thing (i.e. amateurs picking stocks).

  2. I once heard the radiation oncologist at work say that the reason he loves working with cancer patients so much is many of them undergo a transformation after their initial diagnosis where fear falls away and they suddenly understand what’s truly important. It’s unfortunate that it takes a diagnosis like cancer to shake people out of their stupor of distractions from the big picture. Because as you said, we are all going to die. We’re all terminal cases. We all “know” that, but we don’t seem to really believe it. I’m as guilty as anyone. All I can do is start everyday fresh and try to do better. Great post!

    1. Thank you.

      I don’t know how great the post is. The message is HIGHLY relevant though.

      And I wasn’t just talking.

      I feel like I really have some major decisions about what kind of life I want to live. Office drone? Working 40-50 hours per week just to barely be able to pay for my house and car?

      I’m not entirely sure that makes the most sense anymore.

      Lot of reflecting to do. And I will be.

      Thank you for reading and saying hi. 🙂

  3. “Life’s too short to be filled with energy takers” – I absolutely agree with this. I sliced a lot of people out of my life, one was one of my closest friends, because I realized they were drama/gossip-loving zaps of energy and completely negative. And I just don’t have time for that. Do I miss their company sometimes? Yes. Does the majority of that crowd think I’m the biggest bitch? Yep. But I’m happy. There is totally something to be said about living your life on your own terms but for some reason that’s the scariest thing in the world to so many people.
    These entries are always so inspirational to read, I hope know.
    And p.s., I’m totally going to pretend that I’m SC up there.

    1. Yeah, I already have a few.

      Some big. Some small.

      The key for me is to not collect anymore.

      I hope you have an amazing weekend, Dawn.

      1. Yes we all have a few…I have learned, by kicking and screaming my way at first, to look at each of those regretful moments with the intent to understand. They each have a lesson…and without them I wouldn’t be who I am today.
        Those lessons are how you keep from collecting any more! LOL
        You have a great weekend too Matt. I’m hoping my next post will be about a new found love….

    1. I’ve never heard this before. I’ll be interested to see whether it shows up on his next release, full-band-style.

      Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  4. A good read – life is a complicated ball of yarn, we spend our existence pulling at the strings trying to connect them and make sense of them. Stitchery can be frustrating! Take it from me – the girl who flatlined for 7 minutes, the one they said would never wake up – you have to live into your life with all of yourself. Thanks for this one Matt 🙂

    1. Seven minutes.


      Thank you for still being here. I evidently have some reading to do.

      Appreciate you peeking in on this. Hope you have a wonderful day.

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