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What can we learn from terminally ill people who know they are dying? What do they regret?

Knowing their regrets, is there anything we can do to live a more fulfilling life? What can we do to live a life free of regrets?

Bronnie Ware spent several years sitting by the bedside of dying people. Based on this experience, she wrote a blog and a book. In her writings, Ware identified the five most common regrets she encountered.

I became interested in what we can do in the present to have a more fulfilling life. What can we do to prevent having regrets at the end of life? The result is this series of four articles. In these articles, I rely heavily on the model of physical, hedonic, eudaemonic, and social well-being. To derive the most benefit from this article, I recommend you read these first.*

Let’s start with regret #1  I wish that I had allowed myself to be happier.

This is how Bronnie Ware describes this regret:

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying. 

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

Let me start by rephrasing Bronnie’s words using a story of a guy, let’s call him Tom. Tom was not truly happy with his life. He wanted to be happy, and he felt that others expected him to be happy. He had two choices:

Figure out what he needs to change to become happy!

Unfortunately, he got used to a particular way of life. A life that was pretty OK, but did not have much happiness in it. He got used to the familiarity of this OK life, and he was afraid to change anything to try to become happier. At the end of life, Tom regretted not following this path, not allowing himself to push through the fear towards the freedom to change and enjoy a happier life.

Pretend to himself and others that he is indeed happy

This choice required very little energy investment on his part. It did not require him to overcome his fear of the unknown. And he chose this path of least resistance. Yet, he regretted this choice at the end of life.

As I discuss elsewhere * our quality of life can be described by four primary factors:

– Physical Well-Being

– Emotional Well-Being (life of enjoyment and satisfaction)

– Psychological Well-Being (life of ego integrity, meaning, growth, and development)

– Social Well-Being (a good life within the society)

When all of these factors are balanced, we experience great life quality. Moreover, these factors create a protective buffer defending us from physical and psychological disorders. What factors did Tom have out of balance?

Imbalanced Factor: Emotional Well-Being

Let’s start with emotional well-being, which is comprised of:

  • a high level of positive emotions;
  • a low level of “negative” emotions;
  • a high level of life satisfaction.

Tom’s primary complaint focused on not experiencing enough happiness, and that made him feel dissatisfied with his life. He did not experience enough positive emotions. His rational mind became fully aware of this lack of happiness only at the end of life, and described this as “regret” or reduced “life satisfaction.”

 

Imbalanced Factor: Psychological Well-Being

Let’s move on to psychological, or eudaemonic, well-being. Just to remind you, eudaemonic well-being is comprised of:

  •  Ego Integration;
  •  Autonomy;
  •  Environmental Mastery;
  •  Personal Growth;
  •  Life Meaning.

What does it mean that Tom did not experience enough happiness?

Here is one common scenario. Tom’s spirit had desires, yearnings, and dreams. To express and actualize these yearnings, the spirit sent action impulses.

Spirit: “Tom! Go play football! Remember how much fun it was when you played in college?”

Tom: “Sorry, dude, but I have to work!”

Spirit: “Tom, I want to go to acting school! It’s so much fun! And I want to do stand-up comedy!”

Tom: “C’mon! I’m 55 years old! It’s too late!”

Instead of listening to the spirit’s yearnings and implementing them in real life, Tom decided to suppress and ignore them. He chose to fool his spirit by trying to persuade himself that, in fact, he is quite happy. “I have a great family, I’ve got a car, I have a job that pays my bills. What else can I expect from life? Look around – there are so many people who don’t even have what I have!”

But the human spirit is no fool! No matter how long Tom ignored his spirit’s requests to fulfill its yearnings, the spirit still knew Tom was not doing anything to fulfill his dreams.

Two factors of eudaemonic well-being that describe the relationship with one’s spirit are “personal growth” and “life meaning.” And it’s likely that these two factors were imbalanced during Tom’s life.

Tom was also afraid of the changes that could potentially bring him more positive emotions, fulfillment, and happiness. And this means that, once again, his capacity for personal growth was stalled because of his fear.

Tom’s attempt to fool his spirit created a division within his self. There was one part of his self that yearned for something more, and the other part of the self that said, “Stop it, you have enough! Besides, I’m scared!” Thus, we can say that Tom had another eudaemonic factor out of balance: ego integration.

Finally, Tom tried to show others that he was actually happy. He chose to pretend, one of the reasons being that opinions of other people had an important impact on him. Thus, his  “autonomy” factor describing his ability to resist social pressures and make independent decisions for himself was out of balance.

To summarize, Tom’s imbalanced factors were:

  1.  Hedonic Well-Being: Positive emotions & life satisfaction.
  2.  Eudaemonic Well-Being: Integrated ego, autonomy, personal growth, and life meaning.

Is there anything that Tom could have changed in his life to be happier? To answer this question, let’s start with a different question.

What is Happiness?

Roughly speaking, happiness is a pleasant state resulting from experiencing a wide range of positive emotions, such as contentment, joy, serenity, amusement, inspiration, awe, love, and many others.

John Stuart Mill, a highly influential British philosopher and political economist, wrote that happiness is not a means in of itself, but rather a by-product of one’s meaningful aspirations and tribulations resulting from trying to achieve a goal [1, 3].

‘‘Those only are happy, I thought, who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness, on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’’

It is quite possible that Tom did not put in front of himself enough goals, and this did not let him feel happy upon achieving the goals. However, the pleasant and happy emotions don’t stay with us forever after we achieve the goal, and soon thereafter we are back to our “usual” state of being.

This raises a question – what could prolong this sense of happiness?

Mill suggested that pursuit of activities such as art may bring us pleasure, and this state is likely to last longer than happiness upon achieving a goal [1-3]. And this is where soma system® starts departing substantially from traditional philosophy and psychology.

While the sense of acute happiness and elation may come from external pursuits, soma system® postulates that a deeper and longer lasting sense of happiness comes from within. This is a state of inner happiness. This state of inner happiness can be supported by deep and nurturing connections with other human beings, but it does not require a human connection.

 

What is inner happiness?

Inner happiness starts with feeling comfortable, pleasant, and safe within your own body.

Can you really have a sense of long-lasting happiness when you experience pain, you are sleep deprived, and you are agitated because of all the discomfort that has accumulated within your body? As you were reading the previous sentence, you might have thought, “Yeah, sure, life probably is tough for sleep-deprived people in pain, but I am fine, I don’t have any discomfort inside and I feel quite fine!”

Unfortunately, your perception is not always right! In fact, I am pretty sure that you have many hidden spots of pain you are not even aware of. We spend years ignoring little signs of discomfort coming our way. Just remember what you do when you have a backache, a headache, or shoulder pain? Most likely, you ignore the pain as long as it is not too severe. If it starts bothering you too much, you take a painkiller.

What do you do when you experience emotional discomfort? Most likely you ignore or distract yourself from unpleasant emotions with food, drink, movies, or hanging out with friends. The body sends you signals of discomfort, pain, or tension as

an attempt to self-regulate. With these signals, the body is asking you to resolve the pain and figure out the reasons for the pain in the first place. Taking pain-killers does not do this. Painkillers cover up the symptoms.

The result of years of ignoring and suppressing discomfort is this feeling of “FINE”. And that is the key point. You should not just feel FINE inside, you should feel AWESOME inside! The feeling of “fine” comes as a result of years of ignoring and suppressing your body’s needs! To have the experience of inner happiness, we want every little inch of your body to be radiating joyful and pleasant sensations!

The inner state of happiness is generated within the body. This state is composed of numerous subtle factors, such as:

  • being aware of sensations throughout your entire body;
  • feeling safety within the body;
  • feeling the energy and pleasant sensations from every inch of the body;
  • a particular posture;
  • a particular muscle bonus;
  • energy in the eyes;
  • a smile.

This is a state that one can cultivate and create. While it is somewhat tricky to reach this state of being, there is absolutely nothing magical about getting there. Learning to cultivate this state is part of soma system® individual and group therapy protocols.

 

What else is required for generating inner happiness?

Your body and mind have to be a united whole. There are many experiences that lead to partitioning the self. For example, when I repeatedly blame myself – “I should have [enter what you are blaming yourself for]” – this means that I constantly live with internal conflict.

Here are several examples of internal conflicts.*

  • Self-judgement &self-blame, as opposed to constructive criticism that leads to growth.
  • A deep feeling of shame for something that happened in the past.
  • General dissatisfaction with the life one has lived.
  • Low level of self-worth and self-love.
  • The inadequate concept of self. For example, identification of self with thoughts, emotions, sensations, or roles; thinking of self as a constant that does not change.
  • Suppressing feelings and emotions; failing to express anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame.

It is hard for inner happiness to co-exist with internal conflict. To generate a sense of inner happiness, one needs to resolve these internal conflicts. And this is exactly why soma system® therapy places so much focus on integrating the ego.

Happiness without creating wonderful sensations within your body and resolving internal conflicts? Absolutely!

You can buy a new car or a beautiful dress!

You can buy “the hugest” house!

You can build “the hugest” wall in the entire world!

You can have the “hugest amount” of money!

You can own “the hugest” company!

You can become “the hugest” President!

But chances are, you still will not experience inner happiness. Inner body sensations provide the foundation for both physical and psychological higher-order functions.

When we are in tune with the subtle sensations coming from the inner body, we know what we need and want physically and emotionally. For example, when your neck starts hurting, this is a sign that you need to do something to resolve the pain. When you feel hungry, this is a sign that your body needs more energy. When you feel tired, this is a sign that you need to take time to rest.

Similarly, if you feel lonely, this is a sign that your body craves meaningful human contact. When you are together with another person and you feel wonderful, warm and tender inside, this is a sign that your BodyMind adores being with that person and this means that your endocrine, immune, and nervous systems also adore being with that person.It is good for you!

When we are in tune with these more subtle inner body sensations, we gain access to deeply joyful and meaningful experiences. These experiences tend to be either free or involve minimum amounts of money. When we are not in tune with

these more subtle sensations when we feel “fine” inside but in reality have been suppressing pain, tension, and unpleasant emotional feelings for years, our mind takes over. It starts craving things that create strong sensations. These things can range from emotional roller coasters in a relationship to drugs.

Material acquisitions also become very alluring. The excitement of buying a multi-million dollar house, or buying a Lamborghini or Tesla. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to say that there is something wrong with buying a Tesla! What I am saying is, just make sure you first learn to experience inner happiness within you, and that you are not using the experience of buying a Tesla to get yourself a bit of happiness!

 

References

[1] Gallagher, M. W., Lopez, S. J., & Preacher, K. J. (2009). The hierarchical structure of well‐being. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 1025-1050.

[2] Mill, J.S. 1989, Autobiography. Penguin, London, England. Original work published 1893.; p.117

[3]  Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2013). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaemonic approach to psychological well-being. In The Exploration of Happiness (pp. 97-116). Springer, Dordrecht.