(Elad Nehorai, The Death Projects) Most people (especially in the Western, developed world) don’t think much about death. It’s shoved to the side, sometimes as close to literally as possible.
Whereas people used to die in their homes with their families and loved ones surrounding them and watching them pass, most people today die in hospitals. And if they’re surrounded by anyone, it’s doctors.
The process leading up to death is no different. We hardly ever see someone suffering terribly from a disease because they are in the hospital.
And culturally, we simply don’t speak about it. Death, although being the most universal human (and, for that matter, life) phenomenon, is hidden under the mattress until we’re forced to deal with it.
And, to be fair, this seems pretty logical: who the hell wants to think about death? Especially our own? Why on earth would someone talk about it?
I’d like to share a few reasons it’s not only important but essential that we speak about the inevitable failure of our bodies to continue running. Death may seem like an uncomfortable subject to think about regularly, but it has been proven to do wonders for the human experience.
Let’s look at just some of the ways thinking about death improves life:
1. It will make you healthier
It’s true. “Death awareness” as they call it (talking and thinking actively about death) leads us humans to start thinking about more than just enjoying the moment. Realizing we will die is an incredible motivator to make our lives healthier and thus more enjoyable in the long run.
One study revealed that, “conscious thoughts of death can spark greater fitness and exercise intentions.”
It also proved that it thinking about death led participants to reduce their smoking and even ”increase intentions to use sunscreen.”
In another study, women who were “death aware” were much more likely to get a breast cancer examination.
The reasons for this seem pretty clear: when we know we will die, and we’re not pretending we’ll live forever, we understand that time passes, things change, and that we need to prepare for the future as well as make our present more enjoyable. Thinking about death regularly forces us to do just that, and results in our living healthier lives.
2. It will make you happier
Okay, so thinking about death makes you healthier, but happier? Healthy makes sense because you can attribute it to fear. But how on earth does thinking about death actually make you happier?
Well, whatever the reason, it’s true. In another study, a researcher asked participants to “write about death or another aversive topic each day for one week, or… just reply to specific questions in an email each day on which they have to spend five to ten minutes.” (An example of such a question: if you’re aware life is short and that you could die sooner than you think, how does it make you feel and how does it impact you in general?).
Sounds morbid, right?
The opposite turned out to be true: according to the researcher his participants, “have been reporting lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self-esteem and increased intrinsic motivation.”
In fact, the study goes on to say that the people who benefit most from thinking, writing, and talking about death on a regular basis are the mildly depressed.
The reality is that we think death is depressing, but the reality is that when we actually think about death, it actually elevates our mood and makes us happier.
There was no reason given in the study but I imagine it has much to do with allowing our minds to stretch to the point of understanding that the world is bigger than our little problems today. Suddenly, a moment in time that is hard is put in perspective, and we start to think about what really matters in our lives.
There are probably other reasons, but I know that’s a big reason why my own mood has improved ever since I started this blog.
3. You will care more about others
In the study I mentioned above it also goes on to say that, “There is also preliminary evidence that such writing might increase forgiveness towards people, including both reducing the desire for them to be harmed and increasing desire for reconciliation.”
The truth is that there are, in fact, many studies that back this up in their own ways.
For example, in a study in 2008, researchers had actors speak within earshot of the participants about the value of helping others. A few moments later, they had another actor drop a notebook in front of the participants.
But here was what was interesting about the study: half the time, they did this while these participants were walking through a cemetery. The other half, they did outside of sight of any cemetery.
The results: the participants in the graveyard were 40% more likely to pick up the notebook that the other actor had dropped and hand it to him or her.
That’s such an incredible number. Almost jaw-droopingly higher if you think about it.
Another study in 2009 showed that thinking about death motivated American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to increase compassion for each other.
All these things make sense, if you think about it: death is the great equalizer, and none of us can escape it. We are humbled by it, and it also causes us to reprioritize what’s important in our lives.
4. Your personal goals will be better prioritized
By this time, just about everyone has seen this simple infographic:
This is taken from an article written by a hospice worker, in which she describes the common regrets of the people she worked with. She seemed to notice that there were patterns among most people, and these 5 were the most common.
Imagine if we could avoid those regrets? Imagine if we could prioritize our lives in a way that’s truly meaningful to us, not simply what’s based off our momentary desires or feelings or thoughts?
The best way to do that, it would seem, is by thinking more about death.
In that first study I mentioned, they wrote that, “death awareness can motivate people to deliberately reprioritize their goal strivings,” which Every Day Health goes on to explainincludes: “their overall life goals related to such things as work, money, and personal relationships.”
My, doesn’t that sound familiar. Almost like exactly the categories that are listed in the infographic.
When we realize we’re going to die, we realize work doesn’t matter as much, family an friends matter much more than we dare to understand, and just about every other cliche we hear in life but don’t live out.
Imagine being able to die happy, knowing you had prioritized what matters in life.
It seems that remembering that you’re going to die is the best way to do that.
5. You’ll appreciate art more
Are you one of the people that looks at surrealistic art (you know, like Salvador Dali, with his melting clocks and all that) and has no friggin’ idea what the point of it is? Is it hard for you to appreciate art that is weird or funky or doesn’t look like what it’s meant to represent?
Then it’s possible you’re not thinking about death enough.
According to a study that measured people’s feelings when observing surreal paintings while contemplating death, “the surrealistic painting emerges as more of a resource of reassurance” than realistic paintings would.
And they go on to say that, “This corresponds to the idea that—although at first sight difficult to decode—surrealistic art offers access to reassurance on a different level of understanding.”
What is it about surrealistic art that gives us this reassurance, and why should it matter?
In another study, researchers actually looked at MRIs of people’s brains when they looked at surrealist art while contemplating death. The result: the part of the brain associated with “self-referential processing” increased in activity.
Translation: “So by evoking a dream-like state not unlike our unconscious stream of thoughts, ‘surrealistic art can provide meaning,’ the researchers conclude.”
And the Smithsonian Magazine says it even more directly: “surrealistic art, when viewed after contemplating death, has the potential to help us feel reassured about the meaning of life.”
The conclusion here: we often tend to stick to “reality” (by which I mean the physical world around us) when we go about our day to day lives. The surrealist paintings are just an example of how often we in the Western world are quick to dismiss the more “unsettling” questions with no obvious answer: the meaning of life, what happens after we die, and more.
6. You’ll die better
In an article that ended up going viral, the Wall Street Journal described why “doctors die better” than the rest of us.
The simple answer is that they see every day how painfully, and how lonely, some people die because they choose to use “life-saving procedures” that do nothing more than add a day of intense pain to life, or have such low chances of working that they are simply not worth doing.
In turn, they were much more likely, then, to plan out how they would die when the time came.
“In a survey of 765 doctors, they found that 64% had created an advanced directive—specifying what steps should and should not be taken to save their lives should they become incapacitated. That compares to only about 20% for the general public.”
The problem with none of us thinking about death is that none of us plan for death. Doctors are some of the few people that have to face death on a regular basis. Some of them on a daily basis. By being more aware, they’ve been able to face death in a much better way than the rest of the country does.
What’s so wrong with only 20% of the general public planning their own deaths?
“The result is that more people receive futile ‘lifesaving’ care, and fewer people die at home than did, say, 60 years ago.”
Dying in a hospital is much more likely to be painful, isolating, and provide few of the comforts we need to die in the beautiful way we’re meant to.
As the Wall Street Journal article says: “Nursing professor Karen Kehl, in an article called ‘Moving Toward Peace: An Analysis of the Concept of a Good Death,’ ranked the attributes of a graceful death, among them: being comfortable and in control, having a sense of closure, making the most of relationships and having family involved in care. Hospitals today provide few of these qualities.”
Our moments leading up to our deaths will ironically be some of the most significant we will ever experience. If we are prepared, we can plan to make that inevitable moment a spiritually, emotionally, and even physically uplifting one.
But first we need to be willing to think about death.