Craig was a young man in a hurry.
A self confessed perfectionist. He prided himself in his inability to relax, loathed holidays and pushed his personal bar ever higher.
‘Holidays are just a waste of time’, he said. ‘All the time I’m away from the office, other people are making progress, doing deals, catching ma up and making money.’
But things were not going great for Craig.
Living on a permanent adrenaline high is not a long term strategy for good physical and mental health and he’d recently suffered several panic attacks which had seemed to come out of the blue.
Of course, they didn’t come out of the blue. As I explained to Craig;
‘There are two roads to a panic attack. There is the slow journey where troubled thoughts and anxieties drip adrenaline into the bloodstream bit by bit and gradually raising back ground stress, or there’s the fast track, super-highway pattern match, where something in the here and now reminds you of something from the past which was perceived as a fight or flight situation.’
We dealt with Craig’s panic attacks in the usual way and they settled back down.
But I thought his belief system could do with a bit of a tweak and I posed an existential question that would make him view his life in a completely different way.
‘Craig’, I said. ‘Just imagine for a moment that you are a very old man and are looking back on your life. What would the highlights have been? Would you have any regrets?’
The regrets of the dying
In fact, there is plenty of research about the regrets we commonly have at end of life. If we take heed of these commonly recurring themes and try to avoid making the same mistakes, you might say we have been given a definitive list of the secrets of happiness.
Bronnie Ware was an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Ware wrote of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she said, “common themes surfaced again and again.”
They are listed here with my own reflections about what we can do to avoid making them too:
Secret of happiness 1: Live your life, not someone else’s’
‘I wish I’d had the courage to live life true to myself not lived how others expected me’
So often we feel we have no choices.
We jump onto the treadmill of life and just keep running. Our lives can become a daily things-to-do list which grows ever longer and will never be completed. Our social, cultural and family conditioning encourages us to live life according to the expectations of other people.
But as Steve jobs said ‘Life is short, so don’t waste it living someone else’s.’
Secret of happiness 2: Live a life in balance
‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’
Having a work ethic is great as work helps us get our emotional needs for meaning, purpose and status met. But it’s all about balance. We can make good use of looking at the wheel of life to us help focus on other areas such as, health, friends, family and fun.
An executive client had a light bulb moment when faced with the wheel. ‘If life was supposed to be all about work’, he said,’ it would read work, work, work all the way around!’
Secret of happiness 3: Be ‘real’
‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings’
Many of us are very intelligent and yet do not have emotional intelligence. We have not acquired the skill of identifying emotions and what those emotions are trying to tell us. But our emotional brains have our best interests at heart and are always trying to help us in some way.
When we do unearth intense or uncomfortable feelings, we often find it difficult to put them into words and communicate them to others; to be more real or have, what Robert Scoble referred to as a ‘naked conversation.’
Depression or anxiety are often the result of a cluster of emotions. If we are feeling depressed or anxious, we might ask the question, ‘what are these feelings trying to tell me? What in my life needs to change? Who do I need to communicate these feelings with?’
Secret of happiness 4: Nurture good friendships
‘I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends’
I have an old plate on the wall of my home. It reads ‘Count your garden by the flowers, your days by golden hours, your life by happy smiles and your age by your friends.’
Caught on the treadmill, running hard to keep on top, out of touch with feelings and with a life lived out of balance, many of us have lost the understanding about the importance of taking the time for friendship. Neuroscience shows us quite clearly that the human brain is a social organ and needs to connect with others for emotional health and well-being.
Secret of happiness 5: Decide to be happy
‘I wish I’d let myself be happier’
Happiness is a choice……. amazing as that seems. It is our default position. Yet often we react rather than respond to situations, to our environment and to people, without realising that we have a choice of perception and a choice of response. No one can make us unhappy without our permission. We have to allow that to happen. The Buddhists have a tradition of accepting the finite nature of life. They understand the acceptance that we will one day we will die, frees us up to truly begin to live.
May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
What do you think? Are there any secrets to happiness that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below…