Sunday, April 27, 2008

What will you regret on your deathbed?

There is a saying going around that no-one on their deathbed ever regrets not spending more time at the office.

It is a witty thing to say - but the people saying it are making a serious point. Does the point stand up to scrutiny? It seems reasonable to expect that some people would regret not working harder or longer to accumulate more wealth to leave to their children and grandchildren. I suppose there would also be a few who would be wishing that they had spent more of their wealth during their lifetime – they would be regretting that they could not take it with them.

I suspect that it is safer to assert that few people on their deathbed ever regret the time they have spent with their families - but that doesn’t sound so witty. It would also be very hard to confirm (or disprove). Imagine an elderly person lying on her deathbed with her family gathered around when someone conducting a survey comes in and starts asking her to nominate the things she most regrets in her life. How would she respond? Then think about the potential bias in the survey sample that would come from leaving out all the people who die unexpectedly, all those who die peacefully in their sleep and those who are not able to think clearly about anything when on their deathbeds.

Why focus on deathbed regrets? Despite Solon’s ancient view that no-one can tell whether they have had a happy life until they reach the very end, it seems to me that survey findings about regret are no less valid because researchers don’t wait until people are on their deathbeds before asking them about their regrets. As discussed in an earlier post there have been interesting research findings about regret. For example, in the long run we tend to regret the things we have not done more than the things we have done (see here).

When someone makes an assertion about deathbed regrets they are obviously just inviting us to conduct a thought experiment.

Some of these deathbed thought experiments are worthwhile. For example, when you are on your deathbed will you regret that you didn’t live a more healthy lifestyle? That seems to me to be worth thinking about – even though the answer could depend on the reason why I am on my deathbed. What would I be thinking if I was on my deathbed because I had been bitten by a snake while out getting my daily exercise?

However, there is one assertion about deathbed regrets made to me by a wise person the other day that seems to be to be just about beyond dispute: “No-one on their deathbed ever regrets not spending more time ironing clothes”.

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