I Wish I Let Myself Be Happier

HavingTime.com featured a post of mine entitled, “The Top 5 Regrets In Life You Should Avoid.” In the article, among other things, I touched briefly on a book written by a palliative nurse called “The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying.” I have not read the book, but I did read the five bullet point regrets, and used them in my post. Now, in this series, I will be delving deeper into each statement, and reflecting on various strategies that we can implement to avoid having the same deathbed regrets.

Deathbed regret #5:

“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Overall how satisfied are you with your life these days? Measure yourself on a scale of 0 to 10 (from ‘extremely dissatisfied’ to ‘extremely satisfied’).

This was the question the World Happiness Report asked citizens of 154 countries and designated territories. Resolutely, the study was able to identify the happiest nations in ranking order with the most miserable. The happiest? I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, think about yourself, and answer the above question. Where do you score? And, what stands in the way of you and your own happiness? In order to avoid the fifth topmost regret of the dying, “I wish that I had let myself be happier,” it will benefit us to look more deeply into what affects happiness and how we might achieve it.

What Is Happiness?

Culturally, it seems that our idea of happiness is fueled by the quiet claim that, instead of “less is more,” “more is more.” We want bigger, better, best and continually compare ourselves to others to measure the worth of what we’ve attained. People hop from one fleeting thing to another in the desperate pursuit of happiness, trying to find a fantastical sense of bliss. What has happened, however, is that the word happiness has become synonymous with pleasure, a word that focuses on temporal satisfaction. In reality pleasure is only the weaker half of the Google Dictionary definition of happiness. It is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” The word contentment points to a deeper sense of fulfillment and a more lasting satisfaction. We so often focus on achieving pleasure that we forget to pursue something much, much better–contentment.

Though social and relational status, income, physical health, and governmental influence all play roles in the worldwide fluctuations of happiness, in regards to the United States, the World Happiness Report found that citizens with a mental illness were more likely to be miserable. It may seem obvious, but when this fact is compared to other influences of happiness, it provides necessary truth. Read what it says (and keep in mind that these reports only reflect those diagnosed with a mental illness):

“…in the USA, for example, a person who is poor is 5.5 percentage points more likely than otherwise to be miserable. By contrast someone with depression or anxiety is 10.7 percentage points more likely to be miserable. So how much could we reduce the prevalence of misery in the USA if we could miraculously abolish depression and anxiety disorders without changing anything else? Well, around 22% of the population have this diagnosis. If they were all cured, we could reduce the percentage of the population in misery by 0.107 times 22%. This is 2.35% of the whole population. That is a large portion of the total 5.6% who are in misery.


By contrast, eliminating poverty in the USA reduces misery by 1.7% points, unemployment by 0.3% and physical illness by 0.5% out of the total 5.6% in misery. Taken together, those three factors barely make as much difference as mental illness on its own.”

The study implies that happiness is not a result of achieving temporal pleasure, building an impressive resume, or of attaining worldly success. Happiness primarily starts in the mind and maintaining mental health is an essential key. In other words, happiness is not dependent on the external as much as it is on the internal. It grows from within, yet, we continuously look for it in the world around us. Our pursuit should be toward a deeper sense of joy, contentment, or fulfillment, and less toward a fleeting sense of happiness.

Live For Your Eulogy, Not Your Resume

“I’ve come to dislike happiness” New York Times columnist and author of Road To Character, David Brooks, confessed on the Ted Radio Hour. “If you ask me about the most important times of my life…it’s rarely the happy times; it’s the times when you’re struggling for some ideal. And that sort of defies happiness, but it points more toward fulfillment.” In his Tedtalk, Brooks, explains the importance of attaining internal fulfillment rather than chasing external satisfaction in the context of asking the question, should we live for our our resume or for our eulogy? Our resumes compile external, worldly successes while our eulogies summarize our eternal footprint on this earth and is supported by an inner sense of peace, contentment, and fulfillment. Guy Raz, host of the Ted Radio Hour summarized Brooks’ argument like this, “We spend far too much time focused on values like ambition and success, and too little time on values like honesty, compassion, and kindness.”

Focus On What Matters Most

Studies have shown that the desperate pursuit of happiness could actually be leading humanity toward a deeper depression. “Western societies often overemphasize the pursuit of happiness, and regard negative feelings such as sadness or anxiety as maladaptive and unwanted. Despite this emphasis on happiness, the amount of people suffering from depressive complaints is remarkably high.” Because of our focus on worldly possessions and success as well as our cultural pursuit of happiness, we are distracted away from inner priorities.

Joy comes from a satisfaction only attained from within and only as a result of pursuing, not happiness, but eternal fulfillment through virtuous building of character and transcendent reliance. Focus on the values that matter most in this world, prioritize your life appropriately, and build your eulogy more fervently than you build your resume. In the end, contentment matters much more than pleasure, and fulfillment more than happiness. 

So, overall how satisfied are you with your life these days? Measure yourself on a scale of 0 to 10 (from ‘extremely dissatisfied’ to ‘extremely satisfied’). 

Oh, and, by the way, Norway is considered the happiest nation.

This post is a part of a series on Deathbed Regrets unpacking the top 5 regrets of the dying. Catch up on the others:

  1. I Wish I’d Been Authentic
  2. I Wish I Hadn’t Worked So Hard
  3. I Wish I’d Expressed My Feelings
  4. I Wish I’d Stayed In Touch With Friends
  5. I Wish I Let Myself Be Happier

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