The Top Five Crocodile Tears of the Dying

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In 2011 Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse, published a book in which she detailed the five most frequent regrets of those she cared for in the final stages of their lives[1]. So what would people on their death-beds do differently if they had their lives to live all over again? Hazard a guess. My suspicion is that you will readily sympathise with the five most popular sentiments because these are among the things today’s robustly-healthy already regret.

One of the most popular regrets, for instance, especially among men, will resonant very loudly: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. At the end of their lives, Ms Ware’s wards frequently lamented having sacrificed time that could have been better spent with their partners, friends and children, in order to keep a foothold on the corporate treadmill. The thing is that this clarity of perspective is not reserved for those whose grip on the mortal coil is becoming increasingly tenuous. The majority of people, if questioned today about what their ailing future selves are likely to regret, would already say ‘having worked too much.’ Yet these same people, if given the choice of working less today, would not take it. The reason why is because they want the money that comes with working more.

Consider the following. Imagine you are presented with two almost identical job opportunities. The first offers an annual salary of $80,000 (€55,000), has reasonable working hours, and would allow you to get about 7.5 hours sleep on an average work night. The salary of the second job is $140,000 (€100,000), the hours are unusual and the average sleep time on work nights is about 6 hours. Which one of these two options, all things considered, do you think would make you happier? And now: which one of these options would you choose?

Alex Rees-Jones and his co-researchers posed this and other similar questions to more than 2,600 respondents[2]. The majority suspected that the option that allowed more time for sleeping would make them happier. They were right, adequate sleep does correlate with higher levels of self-reported wellbeing. However, not all of those who recognised this relationship actually chose that option. Against their better judgement, one could say, many opted for the more financially-attractive job. Generally, the researchers observed that as soon as money comes into the picture, choices move away from the ‘happiness’ option.

The ‘Five Regrets of the Dying’ almost implies a last-minute epiphany among patients in palliative care. In reality, these patients knew well before their health started to fail that they would likely regret the choices they were making. And, contrary to their stated belief that they would choose differently if they had a second chance at life, they probably wouldn’t. We might know that money doesn’t make one happy, but still we want to give it a try: for a couple of hours of overtime or for the chance of a pay-boosting promotion, we are prepared to commute longer or to sacrifice a relaxing evening with the family.  In fact, most of the time, working more and earning more will easily trump time with family and friends.

So why do people want all of this money (or at least the chance of earning more money) in the first place? What is it the money buys? Apart from the necessities of life, a considerable chunk of money goes into what are known as positional goods. These are articles or activities whose main purpose is to confer status onto the owner of the good or the pursuer of the activity. The rarer the good or activity – and typically, therefore, the more expensive it is – the more status it confers. Indeed, one does not even have to buy anything at all, because money itself is a positional good.

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[1] Ware, B (2011). The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.

[2] Benjamin, D.J., Heffetz, O, Kimball, M.S. & Rees-Jones, A. (2011): What do you think would make you happier? What do you think you would choose? American Economic Review, Forthcoming

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