The Five Secrets You Must Discover before You Die
by John Izzo, Ph.D
What are the secrets to happiness and meaning? Why do some people find a deep sense of purpose while they are here and die with few regrets while others end their lives bitter and disappointed?
About two years ago I set out to answer that question by asking several thousand people to identify the one person they knew who had lived a long life and found true happiness. It seemed to me that each of us knows at least one person who achieved true success. After receiving over 1,000 nominations, I interviewed 235 people from the age of 59-106 (who had over 18,000 years of life experience) asking them to reflect back on their lives: What brought happiness? What gave meaning? What did they regret? What did they wish they had learned sooner? What did not matter in the end?
These “wise elders” were an incredibly diverse group ranging from a town barber to CEO’s, from poets to native chiefs, Holocaust survivors to war veterans, and represented all the major religions and cultures of our society. My goal was not to interview famous people but to identify ordinary people who had found extraordinary happiness. What I discovered were five clear themes of what it means to live a happy and meaningful life (and to die with a smile on your face). In my new book, The Five Secrets You Must Discover before You Die, I share the five true paths to finding meaning in life and show how we can live these secrets.
The first secret I learned from these interviews is Be true to yourself. Each one of us is on a unique human journey and the path to true happiness is to be true to ourselves. This means knowing what brings us happiness and focusing our life on what matters to us. It means reflecting on a regular basis as to whether our life fits our soul. In our daily lives it means knowing what brings us joy and ensuring that we fill our life with the right elements. It also means following our unique destiny. One of the people I interviewed was a Latino woman who talked about the importance of following our “destina.” The idea is that each of us has a path that is most true to us, which is not so much a destination as a way we are meant to be in the world. For example, I am a teacher and philosopher by nature and when I stay close to that path I experience true joy.
Being true to self often means drowning out other voices that would ask us to live their dreams instead of ours. Ron, a gifted chiropractor, told me the story of how he planned to become a medical doctor but when he visited a chiropractor shortly before starting medical school he discovered a profession that connected to his true self. “Others told me I was crazy but I knew it was my path.” He told me that to follow your heart you must have the “discipline to listen and the courage to follow.” This means asking if the life we are living is true to our deepest sense of self and it sometimes requires a step of courage to follow our soul. Are you being true to yourself right now?
The second secret I learned is to Leave No Regrets. It seems to me that what we fear most as we age is not death, but rather to come to the end of our life feeling that we never truly lived. The saddest words ever spoken at the end of life are “I wish I had…” Tom, a native healer, told me that the great fear at the end of life is “the great incompleteness; that you did not do what you came here to do.” One of the most interesting things I discovered in talking to 235 wise people is that almost no one regretted risks they took that did not work out and most said they wished they had risked more. When I asked these people about major crossroads in their lives, many of them talked about taking risks-sometimes large and sometimes small-which wound up bringing great happiness. One of the keys to moving towards what we want instead of what we fear is to focus on the best possible result and not the worst. Are you going for what you truly want in your life or acting with fear?
Become Love was the third secret I learned from these people. Not surprisingly, the greatest source of happiness for people and the largest place of regret had to do with people. What I discovered is that those who made people a priority in their lives and who developed deep personal relationships found true happiness. Many of them told me that “things” rarely brought true joy whereas family and friends brought lasting happiness. One way to focus on relationships is to get intentional goals for our personal relationships just like we do in our careers.
Yet the most interesting thing I uncovered is that being a loving person, the choice to give love, is even more important in determining happiness than getting it. These people talked to me about the importance of choosing love and kindness as your way in the world. They taught me that when we choose to be a loving person we find a deep sense of meaning in life.
The fourth secret was to Live the Moment. One of the most common things people told me was how fast life goes by and how important it is to enjoy each moment. One woman told me “when you are young you think sixty years is an incredibly long time but when you get there you realize it was only a moment.” Among the secrets they shared were how important it is to live in the present, to fully enjoy whatever experience you are having (and not to wish you were somewhere else), and to live with gratitude focusing on what you are grateful for rather than what you don’t have. They told me that we have no power over the past and little power over the future. Many of them said that whenever you find yourself saying “I will be happy when or I will be happy if” that it is important to remember that happiness is a choice we make inside. One woman told me: “You have to stop judging your life and start living your life. Stop keeping score trying to decide if you are winning. Instead live each day fully and stay in the moment.” Are you living with gratitude right now, focusing on enjoying your life rather than judging it?
The fifth and final secret was to Give More Than You Take. When I asked people what gave their life the greatest meaning, people told me again and again people that being of service and knowing that you made things better because you were here was by far the greatest source of meaning. I learned that whether in career or personal life, that it is what we give not what we take that gives life meaning. Many of them also reminded me that we have little control over what we get from the world every day (whether people will love us, whether we will win the lottery, etc.) but we have complete control over what we give to the world (whether we choose to be kind, charitable, and to give to others). These people reminded me that everything we take from the world dies with us, but everything we give to the world gets recycled. A wise woman named Susan told me that “when we are young we cry for ourselves but as we age we learn to cry for the world.” Indeed all the spiritual traditions remind us that true happiness comes from focusing on being of service and in the process joy finds us. Are you focused on giving or getting each day?
What I also discovered is that it is not enough to know the secrets, we must live them. One man told me “many of us know what is important but it is not enough to know, you have to put these things into practice.” These people taught me a great deal about how to live the secrets as well and I share many of their techniques in the book. One of my favorites was sixty-four year old Joel who told me about how he reminds himself each day to live the moment. “When I wake up the first thing I do is say a prayer thanking God and the universe that I get to live one more day and I pray that I will treat it as a gift. At night, just before I go to bed, I have a time of meditation and remember all the things that I am grateful for that day and ask for one more day.”
Someone once told me “if you want to live a happy life; ask someone who has lived one.” This past year I had the privilege to sit at the feet of 235 of the wisest people I have ever met and I was amazed how clear they were on what mattered, what didn’t matter, and how each of us can create a life of meaning and happiness.
Copyright © 2008 John B Izzo
John Izzo, Ph.D. is the bestselling author of Second Innocence and host of the public television series The Five Things You Must Discover Before You Die. Holding advanced degrees in religion and psychology, Izzo has spoken to over one million people on four continents about living more purposeful lives. More information about Mr. Izzo can be found at www.theizzogroup.com.