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How thinking about death can lead to a good life

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Death awareness

When starting to use Myend, the thought of death must cross your mind. It’s inevitable – without death there wouldn’t be a Myend. And for some people, dealing with this thought might be difficult. They might associate (their own) death with mere sadness. But without discrediting these feelings, I’m here to show you that thinking of death can also lead to a good life.

Let’s get real: I might die any minute, and so could you. Whether this thought makes you scared or not, it’s still the reality. So what if I told you there are two ways to deal with this reality? The first way will bring you fear and anxiety and the second way will bring you joy, love, lust for life and many other good side effects. Which one would you choose? I think I speak for most of us when I say, let’s go with the second way. But how does that work? Can death really mean something positive?

Scientific proof

The short answer: Yes. There is scientific proof that suggests that contemplating your demise can have positive results for your own life and that of others. According to research, an awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help you re-prioritize your goals and values. Even non-conscious thinking about death — say walking by a cemetery — could prompt positive changes and behavior. This means that even having the Myend app on your phone can work as a non-conscious reminder that brings positive change to your life!

In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was instructed to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

If you avoid thinking about the end because you’re afraid of death, you might be wasting an opportunity. After all, death is what gives life its edge. Think about it this way: if life never ended, would it really still be that special? Laura King, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, studied life and death from an economics perspective, as commodities. Death represents the scarcity of life, and understanding life as a scarce commodity enhances appreciation of life. Too much of a good thing decreases its value. This is true for anything, but especially for something as precious as life. Even when you’re healthy, young and happy, something or someone could end it all. And so embracing death, rather than fearing it, can help us find pleasure in living.

Cultural differences

The idea of embracing death can feel uncomfortable, depending on your culture or religion. According to psychologist Sheldon Solomon, Americans are particularly prone to distracting themselves from the ever-present specter of death. Also other Western societies are known to not think or talk about death too much.

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Buddhist Butan, where cultivated death awareness is a daily practice. According to the Gross National Happiness index, Butan is one of the happiest countries in the world. Part of their happiness seems to be coming from the fact that citizens face death a lot—it is expressed in their language, iconography, extensive mourning rituals, and cultural instruction to consider death, consciously, five times a day.

Westerners who travel to Bhutan highly recommend the practice, saying it has liberated them from their fear of death. “I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” writes Linda Leaming, author of A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up. “Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

Better health

Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, increasing levels of exercise, or performing breast self-exams.

The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.

The power of legacy

Lastly, in a 2015 study, researchers identified what they call mortality legacy awareness. This is a form of mortality awareness that drives the need to leave something behind after we have gone – thereby outliving and transcending death. This could be a highly creative force.

The need for a legacy turned out to be an important part of effectively dealing with the prospect of death. It helped lessen feelings of hopelessness and a lack of purpose. Legacy awareness correlated with striving to be healthy and striving for spiritual growth (such as believing that life has a purpose).

Therefore, those interested in passing down their heritage to future generations as a way to transcend death, are likely to take responsibility for their health and internal development. Artists are a perfect example: through their creative legacies, they live on and are never totally gone. Working on leaving a legacy – whether it is making art, raising a family, passing on family history or helping others – can be a way for people to better tolerate ageing and face the prospect of death.

These legacies do not only help the ones you leave behind to cope with the loss of you, it can also motivate you to accomplish more, be healthy, be mindful and maintain good relationships.

So the next time you are reminded of your death, remember that focusing on what you would like to leave behind could help you turn something scary into a positive motivator.

Shifting your perspective

Thinking about death all the time, however, can be paralyzing. The philosopher Alan Watts points out that forgetting about death is just as important as remembering it. If you spend all your time thinking that you will not be around someday, you could lose motivation to do what you have to in life.

But just like you sometimes need some sleep to become more productive the next day, Watts says, you should reflect on death in order to appreciate life more. Avoiding it altogether is foolish because contemplating death can be one of the most powerful and uplifting tools. It helps shift your perspective: ultimately you’ll die, and dealing with that will help you understand why it’s so remarkable that you’re here at all.

So, going back to those two ways of dealing with death. Would you choose the first way, in fear, or the second way, with joy? Looking at the evidence I think it’s safe to say that death can really mean something positive. It can help us think happy thoughts, appreciate life, support others, leave a legacy and appreciate life altogether. Learning to deal with death might be one of the most powerful things you will ever do in life.

Myend can help you make this transition. Use the app on your phone as your personal ‘demise reminder’, write down the appreciation thoughts you don’t want to forget, support others by writing to them and leaving them your belongings.

Myend – dance with death, enjoy your life ❤️