“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement speech, 2005
A variety of research shows that, paradoxically, reflecting on death can be instructive for improving ourself in the present and useful to plan a better future.
For example an important study of 2009 conducted by psychologists Adam M. Grant and Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni have emphasized that when people are aware of their mortality, they become more originative, productive, resilient and purposeful.
The two researchers examined the dynamic relationship between death anxiety and death reflection.
On the one hand Terror Management Researchers have suggested that death anxiety motivates individuals to avoid existential terror by avoiding death-related thoughts, which may prevent death reflection (Pyszczynski et al.,2003). On the other hand Generativity Researchers have suggested that death reflection facilitates proactive planning and marshaling of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral coping strategies for meaning making, and these reduce death anxiety (Cozzolino et al., 2004; McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992).
In addition to this interesting study Irvin Yalom, a clinical psychologist who deals with existential issues, has also written in this famous book “Staring at the Sun” about how contemplating mortality on a deeper level can have positive psychological effects. He has argued specifically that people who contemplate, accept and face death develop a more “authentic” life in which their behaviour and goals are more align with their values.
Even today there is an elegant new app, called “WeCroak,” that doesn’t do much — but it will still cost you 99 cents in the app store. It simply reminds you that you are going to die. And more importantly, these morbid reminders may make you happier. You are encouraged to take one moment for contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation when WeCroak notifications arrive. The Founders explains that experiencing a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor things that do.
But why does embracing death is so important for our life?
The answer is based on the central role of “self-prospection,” and so in the generation and evaluation of mental representations of our possible futures.
Infact it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Infact therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.
So, people who are able to envision their future can have positive outcomes for life such as:
In conclusion remembering that this one life is finite helps us find meaning and be attentive and intentional with our actions. Rather than the perfect selfie or the perfect salary, you might think about spending time with the people who matter to you, doing things that make you happy, and leaving your mark on society.
Thinking about death brings us closer to our values, and helps us think about what “the point” is; ask yourself what you value, what you stand for, what you want to be remembered for, and what you believe is your purpose.
“In each thing there is an insinuation of death. Stillness, silence, serenity are all apprenticeships.”Federico Garcia Lorca
So, if you’re feeling courageous, make some space for thinking about death.
The payoff ? A more meaningful, resilient and intentional living.