On What Matters Most in Life

It is a science-backed idea that relationships are the key to health and happiness.


The following is a cautionary tale about what matters most in life and the opportunity we have every day to ensure we don’t ever look back in regret.

I last saw my grandmother, on my father’s side, a few years before she passed away. She’d lived a full life yet her death felt sudden. A stroke took her but it took more than just her life. It took the very foundation that had stabilized our family for decades.

To say that my dad’s side of the family is dysfunctional is an understatement. Sisters critiqued more than supported one another. Brothers who’d grown up together could not stand the sight of each other. I even had a couple uncles that lost contact with the rest of the family up until they passed away.

Despite this, my grandmother had a way of making things less volatile. It’s not her fault her family was a mess—my grandfather was a poor father and an even worse husband—but she did everything she could to keep some semblance of family. She had character. Even well into her 80’s she could make her stubborn children heed her sage advice.

It’s no surprise then that our family unraveled when she passed away. Accusations flew, there were fights over properties that were left behind, and one of my uncles took up a drinking habit that created endless family friction and ultimately took him to the morgue.

Things have settled a bit since then. As they grew older, my father and his siblings lost the will to fight each other. But there’s no going back to right the wrongs of many decades. There’s only living with the could’ves and should’ves. There’s only living with the regret of not looking after what matters most in life.

The Things We Regret

One of my uncles said this a few years after we lost my grandmother, “We didn’t know how much we needed her until we lost her.”

Too often, we prioritize things that will be quite meaningless in a few years’ time, or even a few days’ time. Yet we dwell on them as if they mean the world to us. Meanwhile, we take for granted the good that inhabits our lives. And we don’t realize this until it’s too late.

I have my own regrets when it comes to my grandmother. Thankfully I didn’t contribute to the daily stress that her children created for her, but there’s a lot I wish I would’ve done differently.

The last few years in her life coincided with my own struggles. I was so consumed with the challenges that I was facing that I didn’t have much regard for what was going on with anyone else. I wasn’t willfully selfish, I was simply battling something that asked and took a lot from me. Because of this I had very little contact with her at the end of her life. This is a regret I will carry with me forever.

My grandmother was the single most selfless person I’ve ever met. She was kind and courageous. Life dealt her a poor hand and she faced it with dignity and a determination to always do good. A cheating, drunkard of a husband and troublesome children could not down her spirits or change her.

I wish I’d told her how much I admired her and what she meant to our family. She deserved to have someone looking after her in her last days instead of always being the person who was there for everyone else. These are the regrets of not looking after what matters most in life.

What Matters Most in Life

One of the longest studies on adult life ever conducted provides us great insight into what matters most in life. In 1938, scientists began monitoring the health of 238 Harvard students. All male students at the time the study began, the research has since been expanded to include inner-city residents and the wives and children of participants.

What was one of the key takeaways? Relationships and the resulting happiness they create is one of the single biggest contributing factors to our health. More than money or fame, close relationships keep people happy and healthy throughout their lives. “Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

Our family and friends are what matters most in life. It’s the people that look after us and who are there when we need them. Partners, parents, siblings, friends—these are the people who hold the key to our health and happiness and whom we should prioritize above all else.

My grandmother prioritized her family and we didn’t return the favor. My family will take that knowledge to the grave but it doesn’t mean we can’t be better.

If you’ve ever had similar regrets, know that there’s still time to do right by the people you have in your life today. It all comes down to whether you are willing to be guided by your values rather than your wants and desires, because more often than not, your values are telling you to prioritize relationships, to seek connection.

Pursuing a career, chasing money, collecting material possessions, there’s nothing wrong with any of these as long as we keep a proper perspective of what matters most. Prioritize relationships and you’ll find the kind of happiness that can be sustained for a lifetime.

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