Once we are no longer young – and therefore no longer immortal – most of us spend at least some time trying to figure out how best to live, so that when the time comes to die we can do so without regrets.

For this important task, we have two great human resources: the elderly and the dying.

Yet we seldom avail ourselves of their insights. That’s generally because we don’t want to impose on the former or disturb the latter. (Or, worse, we are naïve enough to believe they don’t have anything to offer.) In my experience, most seniors are delighted to share what they know – and are disappointed that they’re so rarely asked. As one matronly woman insisted, “My epitaph will be Once Again I Was Not Consulted.”

As we grow older, we gain not just wrinkles and grey (or less) hair but knowledge and wisdom forged in the crucible of experience. You can’t log several decades on this little blue ball without seeing a lot, hearing a lot, and picking up plenty of emotional scar tissue. Along the way you develop not just perspective but understanding.

A life fully lived is one that has had its fair share of triumphs and failures, temptations, traumas, disappointments, false friends, and broken hearts, not to mention the pleasures and tribulations of parenthood. Once we reach a certain age we have discovered – usually through trial and error – what works and what doesn’t. We have a better sense of what’s valuable and enduring – and what isn’t. We may even have a few thoughts on how to grow old gracefully.

Many have found an ally in humor. Phyllis Diller claimed she was so wrinkled she could screw her hats on. Author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass decided he loved his wheelchair, calling it his swan boat. One impish resident of an assisted living facility noted that “If you are an old man and you go into a bar wearing pajamas, people will buy you drinks.” And Mathilda Jones, a feisty ninety-eight year old spinster, told the Houston Chronicle in 1987 that she wanted no male pallbearers at her funeral. “If men could not invite me out when I was alive, they’re not going to carry me out when I’m dead.”

As we grow older, we gain a frame of reference unavailable to our younger selves. However, nothing puts a life in focus more quickly than landing on death’s doorstep. Those who don’t pass away suddenly are given a chance to do a final accounting, a true assessment that includes both satisfactions and regrets.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, worked several years in palliative care, and routinely spent the last three to 12 weeks of her patients’ lives with them. She listened to their stories and recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which she later compiled into a book. According to her, these were her patients’ greatest regrets:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. Wow, a biggie and, as it turns out, the single most common regret. Ware found that many folks get caught up in what well-meaning parents, children, spouses, mentors or bosses want for them. Consequently, they found it impossible – as Joseph Campbell put it – to follow their bliss. Little is more important than finding your own path – and accepting the responsibilities and obligations that come with it. However, it can take courage and determination to overcome the expectations of family, co-workers or “society.” The dying remind us that our time here is shorter than we think. Health grants us the freedom to pursue our dreams. Once it’s gone, we lose the ability to live the life that we’ve imagined.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. I know what Ware is saying here but I wish she’d phrased it differently. Many people find meaning, purpose and even a sense of identity in their work. It often leads to a feeling of earned success. Hard work can be one of life’s great satisfactions, especially if it provides you with an opportunity to express your talents. So I would venture that working hard is not what the dying regret but rather working too much and losing balance in their lives. And workaholics often sacrifice so much for so little. A simpler, less materialistic lifestyle, for instance, enables shorter working hours, greater freedom and more leisure.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. This isn’t the case with everyone, of course. I’ve known folks who have never had an unspoken thought. But others go through life with their opinions and emotions bottled up inside, often just to keep the peace. This is not only frustrating, it makes the individual feel like he or she is living a lie. Ware points out that, while you can’t control the reactions of others, speaking honestly either raises a healthy relationship to a higher level or eliminates an unhealthy one. Either way, you win.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. As we go through life, we never stop making new acquaintances. But, in my experience, old friends are irreplaceable. These are the men and women who have known us longer and better than anyone… yet choose to hang out with us anyway. Even golden friendships fade with inattention or neglect, however. And near the end of our lives, it may not be possible to find them.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier. It’s sad how many people only realize at the end of their lives that happiness is an inside job – an attitude – not a particular set of circumstances. Worry and regret can poison a life and diminish the only time you have to be happy: right now. For it is always the present moment.

Why listen to the elderly or the dying? Because it is an excellent way of getting the wisdom of experience in advance. With each day – each passing hour – our future grows shorter. That’s why it’s essential to determine who and what are most important to us.

Ware’s short list is a good place to start.

What’s the most important thing in your life?

Alex Green

Alex Green is the author of excellent books like, The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, and Beyond Wealth, that show you how to lead a “rich” life during trying economic times.