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Why Thinking About Death Is Healthy

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Why Thinking About Death Is Healthy

Maren Kate

Want your life to be a happier one?  How about a longer one?  Or one in which you start saving money and live in a more organized, productive way?

Studies have shown that seriously considering one’s own death can provide the benefits listed above, plus a few more.

Most of us in Western society actively avoid thinking about death.  We’re uncomfortable with sickness, don’t like to visit the doctor, hate hospitals, and don’t know what to say to a dying friend or relative, so we avoid them. Our intentions are good, but our fear is greater.

I know of an individual who is highly successful, extremely intelligent, quite charitable and very, very wealthy. This person has a family and an enormous group of friends.  And absolutely refuses to consider death. Won’t talk about it. Has no will, no advanced directives, no trusts, no medical care plan—nada. I can only imagine the horrible circus that’s going to follow death when it inevitably happens.

Ben Franklin said that nothing is certain but death and taxes––in 1817. You’d think, knowing this, we’d make darn sure that we knew everything we could about death and dying in preparation for a certainty. Although we see death everywhere in our society, like TV, movies, newspapers, computer games, books, it remains a fantasy, a fiction in our minds.  It doesn’t become real until either our friends, our families or ourselves are faced with the reality.  This makes it almost impossible to help and support dying loved ones the way they need.

ACCEPTING THAT EVERYONE DIES “MEMENTO MORI” GIVES YOU:

A GRATITUDE FOR LIFE

In accepting the idea of your eventual death, you’ll understand how to really live. In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks says:

“If this year were your last, would you spend the next hour mindlessly checking your social media, or would you read something that uplifts you instead? Would you compose a snarky comment on this article, or use the time to call a friend to see how she is doing? In a new paper in the science journal PLOS One, two psychologists looked at the present value of money when people contemplated death. One might assume that when reminded of death, people would greatly value current spending over future spending. But that’s not how it turned out. Considering death actually made respondents less likely to want to blow money now than other scenarios did.”

You and I will one day be dead and that death can’t be escaped.  The time of death is unknown.  The fact that it will come, though, is certain.  Accepting that death can’t be overcome by exercise, medicines, telomere lengthening, or organic food actually brings a certain calmness and peace to the present reality.

Contemplating death results in a ‘Seize the Day’ mindset. When we think about our own death, the experience of living becomes stronger. Gratitude for the day we have ahead of us becomes easier.  

THE ABILITY TO VIEW DEATH AS A NATURAL PART OF LIFE

It used to be common to view the dead.  Most of the time, people died at home and were kept there to be viewed and mourned until burial.  As friends and family visited the deceased, they typically kissed or touched the person and reinforced the unwelcome reality of the death.

In Victorian times, photographs of the living with the dead were taken and kept as a remembrance of that person.  Some psychiatrists believe that viewing the corpse makes the loss real to the family and friends, thus helping the grieving process.  They says this is especially necessary in the case of a sudden death when the family is reeling with shock.

A MORE LIBERATING WAY TO LIVE

Life is full of problems.  When you realize that death is coming, your life – even one with stresses and tragedies – is better than the alternative of no life at all.

If death is one of your focal points and when you deliberately exercise ‘Memento Mori’ (or the mindfulness that you must die), then thoughts about your own death triggers a state of mind that values the future.  Immediate rewards are seen as not as important as future goals—especially those that might result in a delay of death, such as higher levels of schooling, lower body mass index, higher income, and loyalty to one’s family.

Phil Keoghan is the host of TV’s The Amazing Race. He says that he almost died after being trapped underwater during a scuba dive. When he finally escaped and reached his boat, he said he just lay there looking up at the sky and thinking about being near death.  

After that experience he considered the things that he wanted to accomplish in his life before death and wrote out a list. He said the brush with death focused his attention on really living his life to the fullest. He came up with a bucket list of things that he wanted to do prior to his death. Since then, he’s concentrated on living his life fully each day.

Phil Keoghan needed a near-death experience to really start living, but you don’t.  Just think about the fragile nature of your own life.  Think about your death.  Reflecting on your life and death every day will give you the impetus to make the most of the time you have left.  Don’t just exist and not actually live—dialing in your days in a monotonous, repeating pattern.

Here’s an item that could help you practice memento mori every day:

SkyMall calls it the “Happiness Watch”, because it lets you know how much time you have left to live life to the fullest. Texas radio station K101.7 FM says about the Tikker:  “…it’s a watch that counts down till your death.  But how does it know? Well discounting accidents, and murder, and deadly diseases, The Tikker uses stats and what it calls a Personal Health Algorithm to predict when you will die.

Living intentionally means remembering that this present life ends at some point.  Instead of chasing the perfect job, vacation, weight or hair color, most people will start to formulate their own set of values that reflect the point of their lives, including what they stand for and how they want to be remembered.  Thinking about your own death brings a happier, more focused life.