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The Secret To A Life Of No Regrets: Live Before You Die

05/03/2011 11:54 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Consider a place where people feel guilty if they enjoyed themselves -- because they aren't getting anything done. Where people see free time as inferior to the un-free time of work and performance. How's that for chutzpah? It sounds absurd yet all too familiar, because that place is all around us, the result of one of the most effective social engineering experiments of all time. The programming has convinced most of us that the very experience of life is taboo.

The master of sci-fi commentary, Rod Serling, would have had a field day with this hoax. I can see his monologue now: "You unlock a door and enter a world in which no one can rest. Where people exist to produce and nothing more. Where enjoyment triggers guilt. You have entered a dimension where only the future matters, and the present is but a way station to a living nightmare in the Twilight Zone."

The taboo against living the life you're here for is held in place by a host of false beliefs straight out of the Twilight Zone -- that worth is dependent on filling every moment with busyness; that the good life is out there in the future somewhere (when you have the right money, house, spouse, success, etc.), instead of where it is, Now, in engaged experiences that satisfy your core needs; that others hold the key to your happiness and satisfaction when you are the audience who determines it all through self-determined actions that make you feel gratified; that you must work till you drop to stay on the success track, also known as the "ideal worker" social norm.

It's such a convincing con that it takes a near-death experience to wake us up to our real lives and the fact that we're actually here to live before we die. There's no doubt about that fact on Philadelphia's Hope Afloat dragon boat team, where the focus is getting the most out of every minute of life. I hung out and paddled with the team of breast cancer survivors on the road to my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the missing link of happiness: engaged experiences. They all told me their lives are far richer and more satisfying post-cancer than before. They are no longer oblivious to the present tense and are energized by their passion for paddling and the camaraderie that comes with it.

"It was an awakening to take my time more seriously," one of the paddlers, Kathy King, told me. "Before I'd be tired, and I would stare down at my feet. Now I look up at the sky, the buildings. I don't want to miss anything."

The blinders stay on for most of us, thanks to twisted social norms that keep us projecting our lives into the future and equating personal value with what we produce. As Alan Watts once put it, "Unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax." He noted that the education you get prepares you for the future, "instead of showing you how to be alive now." Kathy King and her colleagues are showing us how to live now. Because tomorrow's too late.

The false belief that all value comes from output -- "I produce therefore I am" -- is a lousy measuring stick for self-worth but very effective at squelching your life. Every time you step back from productive endeavor, you have no value. The problem is that the realm of nonproductivity happens to be where your life lives -- fun, recreation, play, love, art, social activities, passions. The programming says that's all a sideshow to the real measure of a worthwhile existence: external approval.

Over the last two decades researchers have detailed just how unproductive external approval is. It creates really flimsy self-worth. One researcher I spoke to, Mark Cullen of Stanford's Medical School, told me about enormously successful executives who go into retirement and feel worthless two days later, because they aren't producing anything and have no leisure skills.

External approval concerns lead to more social comparisons, a fantastic way to make yourself miserable by having your status contingent on what others have or do. Focus on extrinsic goals crowds out intrinsic experiences, a study by Bruno Frey and Felix Oberholzer-Gee points out. There's no room for anything but external results, or what Edward Deci of the University of Rochester calls "instrumental thinking." Everything has to lead to some external gain. Anything that doesn't -- living, for instance -- gets eliminated from the agenda. And you wind up with a nag you could do without, regrets. Researchers have found that what we really regret are the things we don't do. It's called the "inaction effect." The taboo against living your life creates plenty of those.

When we crowd out our lives by chasing the yardsticks of outside approval -- money, popularity, beauty, status -- we miss out on the things that provide the only approval that counts, the gratification of our core needs: autonomy, competence, and social connection.
Worth is a byproduct of internal validation, something you get from the part of life that's supposed to be worthless: your passions, i.e., play.

Amy Doran, a woman I met flying kites in Oregon, was a single mother in a new town with no friends and insecure about where she was going. Then she discovered stunt kite flying. Now she's a confident festival performer with a host of friends. Her son, Connor, who has epilepsy, said he felt worthless before he took up kite-flying. He wound up on "America's Got Talent" and has become an inspiration to people across the country. Tony Scott, who was laid off from a financial job in New York, got his worth back, not from a new job, but from making pottery. He learned that there was a person with skills beyond the professional mask.

The skills these people acquired and those of many others I met, from rock climbers to kayakers and badminton players, point a way out of the twilight zone to lasting self-worth and satisfaction that no job can deliver, because it's based on the internal gratifications of autonomy and mastery, not what others think.

The inconvenient truth is that time is the real money. It's a resource with a very finite supply. As Paul Bowles once wrote, "Because we don't know when we will die we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well ... How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems so limitless."

How do we get this through our heads before we die that the part of life that's supposed to be worthless is actually what we've been looking for all along? That the elixirs of fun, challenge and social connection right next to us in the world of play and adventure are main courses of life, not fringe desserts? Listening to messengers like Kathy King is one way.

We could also use a regular awareness campaign to counter the propaganda of life-denial. We have National Week for the Gifted, National Small Business Week, National Arson Awareness, National Tsunami Week. I'd like to propose National Get Out and Live Week for the week of July 18. During this week, everyone would have permission to do the things they don't want to regret not doing later. They can get out and participate in what the science says makes us happier than anything else: engaging recreational experiences. Go out dancing, hike a favorite trail, hang glide, travel with family or friends. Do what you like and things you've never done before. We'll give each other ideas and collect videos that capture people in the act of living without regrets. And we'll get life off the taboo list.

All this really hit home for me in March, when my father died after a long illness. He had no regrets about missing anything at the end, because he didn't. He was never defined by his job, but, instead, by all of his interests and curiosities. He loved cycling and did 100-mile century races in his 60s. He was an amateur carpenter who helped build dozens of homes for Habitat for Humanity, a ham radio buff, a nature lover and camper, a rose gardener extraordinaire, a piano student, a traveler, an astronomy fan, a classical and jazz music lover, a great barbecuer, a ballroom dancer and a short-story writer.

In his last months, as he reviewed his life, he would often say, "Those were good days," looking back and savoring. Those good days are now. Don't get hoaxed out of them.

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Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit and skills of living the fullest life. He is founder of Work to Live and is a work-life balance and stress management speaker and trainer.