What is the most common regret that pains people facing the end of their lives? According to a hospice nurse who has written about her experiences providing end-of-life care, the most common regret of the dying isn't career failures or broken relationships. Instead, it is something subtler.

What troubles people most at the end of their lives is the sense that they haven't seized them. Thanks to some combination of sleepwalking, anxiety, and a desire to please others, many people end up feeling the years have slipped past without them shaping or even really enjoying them. Perhaps that's what Thoreau meant when he claimed that, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation."

How do you avoid this deep but diffuse pain?

The malady

As we'll get to, modern science has plenty to say in answer to this question, but as the fabulous Brain Pickings blog recently pointed out (hat tip to the also fabulous Swissmiss), so does a little-known book published in 1934. As ever, the blog's Maria Popova unearths obscure but valuable wisdom, this time from A Life of One's Own, written by psychoanalyst Marion Milner under the pen name Joanna Field.

The book chronicles Milner's seven-year experiment to figure out the path to true happiness. Her state of mind before she started will be recognizable to many outwardly successful but secretly suffering modern professionals.

"Although I could not have told about it at the time, I can now remember the feeling of being cut off from other people, separate, shut away from whatever might be real in living. I was so dependent on other people's opinion of me that I lived in a constant dread of offending, and if it occurred to me that something I had done was not approved of I was full of uneasiness until I had put it right. I always seemed to be looking for something, always a little distracted because there was something more important to be attended to just ahead of the moment," she writes.

Does this 80+-year-old FOMO sound familiar?

The cure

The cure for this free-floating, life-ruining anxiety is to stop being a spectator in your own existence. But how do you do that? The solution, according to Milner, isn't a new morning regime or personal mission statement. Instead, to be genuinely happy, you have to stop trying to be happy.

America the Anxious author Ruth Whippman hilariously translated that into modern terms for Vox: "Like an attractive man, it seems the more actively happiness is pursued, the more it refuses to call and starts avoiding you at parties."

Instead, of courting happiness directly (and desperately), Milner prescribes noticing the present world as well as what she calls, "the small movements of the mind." Over the course of the book, Milner learns to delight in the sights, sounds, and feelings around her. She starts keeping a journal. Instead of planning and worrying, she focuses on experiencing and listening.

If this all sounds a lot like the modern mania for mindfulness--the claim that the route to peace is through careful attention to the present--you're quite right. Milner might express herself in the dreamier language of her time and profession, but much of her wisdom has been rediscovered and confirmed by modern science.

Her insight that a continual drive for achievement will almost certainly put happiness one more accomplishment out of reach is echoed by recent studies. Happiness isn't something you earn. It's something you do, whatever you circumstances (which is why, research shows, you'd probably be just as happy after being paralyzed in an accident as you are today). Or to put this in everyday language: for happiness, gratitude and mindfulness beat striving.

Ironically, Milner insists, the way to feel you're truly living isn't to push yourself to do anything. It is sit quietly with your reality as it already exists. Only then will you be able to hear and act on your own inner vision over the clamor of "shoulds."  

But perhaps it's best to let Milner have the last (eloquent) word. Of her final realization, she writes:

I had at least begun to guess that my greatest need might be to let go and be free from the drive after achievement--if only I dared. I had also guessed that perhaps when I had let these go, then I might be free to become aware of some other purpose that was more fundamental, not self-imposed private ambitions but some thing which grew out of the essence of one's own nature.

Check out Popova's post for much more wisdom from Milner, or her book for the real deep dive.

Published on: May 31, 2018
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