Avoiding the Regrets of the Dying, Regret #5

Believe it or not, happiness is a choice.

This is the last of my reflections on palliative nurse Bronnie Ware’s post on the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.

As Bronnie also elaborates, happiness is a choice. And for some reason, so many, including myself, unnecessarily choose not to be happy.

#5 I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Mind Control

So the secret is “mind control.” More specifically, control over your own mind (not other peoples’ minds!). So you can prevent yourself from being carried away by extreme negative emotions.

I realize now, after way too long, that I have sought my happiness in societal approval. This is approval from formal institutions like schools and companies and also personal approval from parents and peers. And it usually is measured by material wealth and accomplishments.

There’s a well known quote by the Greek Stoic philosophers:

Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it may not. – Epictetus

It is an cryptic saying, to be sure, in this modern world. But it means that we can choose our opinions and assessments of a situation. And that choice makes the situation beneficial to us or destructive to us.

We usually have an instinctive, knee-jerk reaction to things. We simply let that emotional response carry us. This is conditioned in us by society and its institutions. And it often carries us to a negative and destructive emotional state.

But we can choose a different opinion and assessment. We can choose one that is positive and constructive. This is something which we must learn for ourselves. And, more often than not, we must fight against the prevailing culture of the society we live in.

This applies to everything. 

It applies to the tangible actions we take when we encounter a life altering situation. Like sudden and unexpected unemployment, or injury in an car accident.

It applies to everyday emotional reactions. Like  when you perceive someone’s intention to insult you, or your state of mind when facing the loss of a loved one.

But I Can’t Just Decide What I Feel, Can I?

Contrary to popular belief, I think your heart and your mind are just two aspects of the same thing.

In today’s world, we completely separate our rational, thinking mind from our emotional feeling heart. But I don’t think it’s actually that separate. I think that a thought and an emotional are different aspects of the same thing.

The thoughts that pop up into our heads, like a flicker of flame, usually cannot be controlled overtly. If you ever tried a meditation practice, you’ve experienced this.

But our consistent patterns of thinking – the stories we tell ourselves throughout our lives when encountering situations – are a result of conditioning by society.

For example, never thinking you could become a doctor because your parents and teachers tell you that you are an awful student. Or thinking you can never find a significant other because people teased you about your weight in high school.

These stories we tell ourselves solidify into beliefs that we carry throughout our lives. It’s these beliefs that dictate our rational thinking and emotional reaction when we encounter certain situations.

Reflections on The Top 5 Regrets

Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades…

Each of these regrets speaks to each person differently, which makes sense, as we each have different lives, different triumphs and different challenges.

For me, this regret links very closely to #1 I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.  This is because for me, I think my happiness lies in independent thought and actions. And less so in community (though that’s changing) or accomplishment.

I realize now that, if I do not change my current trajectory, I will be filled with regret over a wasted life. And the only thing that will prevent this conscious choice.

I must consciously choose to what I want my life to be, not just fall into the default mode of drifting. Because if I drift, then I am subject to the whims of others.

What about you?

Do you think our thoughts and feelings can be a result of conscious choice? 

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