How to find happiness in the unlikeliest of places.
“Don’t forget, you’re going to die” is a message I see pop-up on my phone five times per day.
This happy little reminder is sent from an app called WeCroak, which encourages the Bhutanese practice of contemplating death every day.
Does that kind of thinking seem morbid to you? Does it seem needlessly negative? Does it give you anxiety?
As well, a widely-held celebration in the Americas — Dia de Muertos (English: Day of the Dead) — is dedicated to pondering the thin line separating life from death and to commemorating family and friends that have died.
The question is, should we spend our precious time thinking about such a depressing topic as death? Isn’t the topic a black hole we should all try to avoid? Won’t it just lead to our suffering?
Maybe, but maybe not. The fact is, death is all around us. That we and everyone we know and love will die is about as simple and straight-forward a truth as there is. When has denying or ignoring a truth about life ever paid off for you?
Besides, what if our fear of death is a cage that prevents us from noticing what truly matters? What if regularly thinking about death positively changes our thinking and our approach to life?
Thinking About Death Changes Our Minds
In experiments where participants were asked to think about death before filling out a questionnaire, their thinking has been shown to shift. Thinking about death can influence anything from political and religious beliefs to the desire for a legacy.
Why would our thinking change in response to death like this? According to terror management theory (TMT), we double-down on our religious and/or political beliefs and our desire for a legacy because they all promise us immortality, literal or symbolic.
Isn’t that interesting? Instead of addressing our fear of death directly, we try to subvert it by investing in things that will outlast us, like our belief systems, families, and worldly successes.
According to Christine Ma-Kellams a professor of psychology and expert in TMT, “The thought of death makes many people become more narrow-minded and nationalistic. But less defensive methods of coping with death are definitely possible, and some cultures make it easier than others to tap into these alternative ways.”
Specifically, Ma-Kellams wondered whether there was a difference in response to death between European Americans and East Asian Americans. East Asians are often raised with the concept of yin and yang, which proposes that death and life are opposite sides of the same coin — that one cannot exist without the other. This is contrary to the perspective often held in Western cultures, where death is the annihilation of all we hold dear. Ma-Kellams speculated that the East Asian conception of life and death help East Asian Americans better cope with death compared to European Americans.
In five studies, Ma-Kellams and colleague Jim Blascovich found that the two groups did respond differently when reminded of their mortality. East Asian Americans reported more interest and joy in daily activities, as well as more interest in thinking about life.
How we each approach the topic of death seems to be dependent upon how we were taught to approach it. This means that we aren’t stuck with what we’ve got. We can react differently to death — we don’t have to turn inwards and seek comfort in immortality. Instead, we can change our reaction to it.
Changing How We React To Death
Whether we notice it or not — and we often don’t — our fear of death has a powerful influence over our minds. As Ma-Kellams notes, thinking about death causes us to become defensive, narrow-minded, and nationalistic.
But, it’s not death itself that’s the problem, it’s our fear of it. And if different cultures react to thinking about death differently than we typically do in the West, that means our reactions can change.
But, what can help us do this?
Exposure therapy is a technique in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that exposes a patient to their source of anxiety with the intent of decreasing subsequent reactions to it, without causing harm to the patient. Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and specific phobias.
In a review of CBT techniques used to treat PTSD, exposure therapy was found to be the most effective.
Can exposure therapy be used to help us move beyond our fear of death?
Throughout history, cultures and traditions have encouraged people to think about their mortality. Could this practice be a form of exposure therapy that causes people to (eventually!) feel more relaxed and accepting of death? Could this be ancient wisdom that many of us have forgotten?
What if our avoidance and denial of death is only making our fear of death stronger?
Sure, it’s natural to run from what we are afraid of. But, with death, no matter how far or fast we run, we can’t escape it. And perhaps that’s why it’s the most terrifying fear of all — because it’s inevitable. It’s coming for each of us, and that’s a scary thought. But, maybe it’s less scary the more we talk about it and the more we invite it into our lives rather than push it away.
Perhaps we all need a little exposure therapy when it comes to our fear of death.
Finding the Joy in Thinking About Death
I learned about WeCroak by listening to Dan Harris interview the app’s founder, Hansa Bergwall (10% Happier, #126). On the “About” page of the app, Bergwall’s inspiration for the app is made clear: “In Bhutan they say contemplating death five times daily brings happiness.”
Has it brought me happiness? Well, like all things, it’s complicated. Our paths tend to be winding and I took a step back before I took two steps forward.
The start is difficult. Your fear will cause anxiety and you may find yourself trying to expel that anxiety with thoughts of building a legacy, like by having children, writing a book, or starting a business. Or, maybe, you’ll feel the need to become more politically active or engaged in your religious community.
But, as we’ve seen, we feel compelled to do these kinds of activities to find immortality — to subvert our fear of death rather than address it.
If you can keep going, if you can continue to ponder your mortality in spite of the discomfort, you will notice your fear decreasing.
As our fear of death dissipates, a paradigm shift occurs in our minds. Rather than seeing our limited time on this earth as a reason to create, or be a part of, something lasting, something that will immortalize us, we start to see it as motivation to pay attention to what matters to us today.
Thinking about death causes us to realize the value of time because we are forced to acknowledge its scarcity. Like any economist will tell you, if there is no scarcity there is no value. If we deny or avoid thinking about the scarcity of our time on this planet we are in a sense ignoring the value of that time and taking it for granted. Isn’t that tragic?
This, I think, is the great wisdom of pondering our mortality — if we do it long enough, it brings us into the present and forces us to acknowledge the things we care about the most and to appreciate them with renewed vigor. It helps us see when we’re avoiding what matters to us most, like our aging parents, our young children, our partner.
Thinking about death might make you realize that what you’ve been seeking, what you’ve been striving for — happiness, joy, peace — has been waiting patiently in front of you all along, and not on some distant shore.
This is the power of thinking about our mortality. It is our north star. It re-orients us when we stray. It keeps us focused on what matters most. It reminds us of all we’re promised — today, right now, this moment.
So, give it a try. Talk to someone about death. It will be hard at first, really hard. But if you keep going, you’ll find more than you could ever have imagined.
With that, I’ll leave you with this:
…in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.
~ Mark Manson
Thanks for reading!