Living with the Grim Reaper Can Make You Happier

Death is everywhere. Trees die. Cows die. We die. Even inanimate objects like batteries and projects die. Abstract concepts like dreams and aspirations can die, too. But these latter deaths are just tricks of language. What is death, then?

Simba might say that death is the completion of the Circle of Life. Parents tell their children that the dead have gone to a better place. For them, it represents the never mentioned end of this life and beginning of another. Religious apologists and the followers of other ancient schools of thought will tell you something very similar—Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and devotees of Socrates and Plato all have their own conceptions of reincarnation or an afterlife of some sort. Judeo-Christian theologians will tell you that death is the disposal of the physical body and the release of the eternal soul to either heaven or hell. Biologists will tell you that death is the privation of all biological processes, including mental and conscious processes, shortly followed by the decomposition of organic material. In other words, death is just what you would expect it to be—the end of it all, the beginning of nothing, and, conversely, the end of everything. Whether you are a banana slug, an oak tree or a bacterium—in death, you simply cease to exist.

By death we usually mean the end of life—presumably, batteries and dreams are not alive in this way. When robots are ubiquitous, we might say they have died when their battery runs out and that, when we replace the batteries, we have brought them back to life. A sufficiently humanoid robot might be included in the definition of life. We seem to use death as a proxy for not existent in the conscious realm. In any case, nobody really knows what happens after death—we may never know.

But death is possibly our most taboo of words. Uttering it is an implicit social no-no. Hearing about death makes us feel sad, squeamish, uncomfortable, angry, horrified, mournful, regretful, frustrated and helpless. Often, we cannot deal with the death of a loved one. Sometimes, we don’t even know how to deal with a grieving companion or stranger. No matter what we say to her, it always feels inadequate and upsetting. We tiptoe around death linguistically, resorting to a wealth of euphemisms—she’s passed away; lost his life; now at peace; gone to a better place; not with us anymore; pushing up daisies; cashed in his chips; counting worms; lying six feet under; departed; met her maker; stepped off; joined the great majority.  

This makes biological sense. The instinct to do everything possible not to die characterizes the animal kingdom—and we are no exception. This instinct to avoid death is written into the genetic code of every biological creature—in the very first sentence, perhaps. Survival is the essence of evolutionary theory, so it is natural for a life form to be emotionally appalled by the prospect of death. But many animals may not even know that they will soon die. For mice and reptiles, there may be a bundle of emotions they instinctively feel at the prospect of death—just as we do—but no self-reflective thought follows that emotion, as it does in our case. Mammals—especially intelligent primates like us—may understand what death is and how it might affect them, through reasoning. With more complex cognitive abilities comes an increasing capacity for reflecting on death. Yet here we are, squirming around the issue generation after generation.

Death, like birth, transcends ordinary experience. For the dying and those around them, it is the most important thing in the universe. Panic, surprise, anger and regret immediately surface upon realizing that the timer of life is about to ring—either your own timer, a friend’s, or an intimate companion’s. A confrontation with death—a near-death experience, a heart attack, a stroke, a cancer diagnosis, an almost-fatal car accident—is the most powerful means of defining what matters to you. When a close family member is dying, for instance, suddenly all the arguments, fights, anger, frustration and finger-pointing seem pointless and silly. Why didn’t I let go of my negative emotions and savor the precious moments with her? Why do we need a sobering morbid smack on the face to realize that we’re only here for a short while, that we can act in ways that will not seem pointless in the end, and that there is no reason to be angry and disappointed and embarrassed and afraid?

Life is short, so don’t waste it. The fact that this is a cliché does not subtract from its truth value. There is something inconsistent, flawed and severely counterproductive about our attitude toward death. Implicitly, we know that everyone will die—this is depressing, but we all go on living and it works out just fine much of the time. We know that life is a process that has an endpoint—we just do not know when that will come, and that’s the scary part. Nonetheless, the end of one’s life is a suppressed thought, something that feels like it will happen such a long time from now. This causes us to act as if we were going to be here for eternity. We act purely out of negative emotion. Anger, fear, envy, spite, schadenfreude, shame, guilt and embarrassment drive our thoughts and behaviors. We desire things that we cannot get and did not earn, or that will make us unhappy.

But the prospect of meeting the grim reaper provides a reminder that the time you spend living is a function of what you want to matter. It is entirely up to you whether you want to keep worrying about, striving for or being dissatisfied with things that will seem trivial in the end. As Hamlet puts it, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare was on to something here: emotions are merely electrochemical reactions in the brain. Somehow, the stimulation of the brain via neurotransmitters such as vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, gives rise to tangible subjective emotions as real as the Atlantic Ocean. One religious tradition that independently picked up on this insight centuries ago, Buddhism, has had a bit of a revival recently among scientists, philosophers and public intellectuals.

Buddha—with his ideas of impermanence and the loss of the self—realized that suffering is the result of endlessly desiring things, with which we are never satisfied. This is one of three parts of what troubles the suffering mind. The other two are two sides of the same coin: that nothing is eternal or has an enduring essence; and that everything is always changing. The inability to accept these three realities causes suffering. The idea of impermanence—that everything changes and nothing stays the same—is powerful. Experiences and events come and go, as do memories, beliefs, desires, thoughts, emotions and pains. Planets come and go. So do stars and galaxies, and perhaps even this universe. Humans come and go. Personal identities come and go.

Impermanence is an antidote to regret, grief, frustration, dissatisfaction, anger, embarrassment, envy, spite, schadenfreude and all the rest. It is an antibiotic against suffering and a probiotic for compassion, forgiveness, and loving everything that is, in the present moment—as opposed to the things you wish or hope for, have faith in or desire in the future. Sam Harris comments on regret (in a subscriber-only AMA for his podcast, Making Sense):

I think we should register regret, which is to say I think we should learn from our mistakes. That’s a good thing. But, to spend time brooding over how things went, that’s an illusion. What you’re doing is suffering pointlessly in the present under the shadow of certain memories. You’re telling yourself a story about something that might have been, over and over again. How long do you want to do that for? … So I think experiences of regret should … pierce your model of what you’re doing and what you should do in the future … I see no reason to dwell on it. What you need to do is learn what you need to learn from it, and then move forward. Learn from these mistakes and resolve to do better next time.

To immunize yourself against regret is to realize that death is coming for all of us and that you can choose, in the present moment, to do the things that matter to you and be with those whom you care about. Alternatively, you can cause yourself to suffer, in the present, because of things that happened in the past. What a terrible idea! By the same token, you can cause yourself to suffer, in the present, because of things that will happen in the future. This is the domain of fear, anxiety, dread, distress and worry.

Forgiveness is a powerful tool granted to us by the acknowledgment of the human condition. Once you realize that how you react to any situation, and thus how you feel in any given moment, is under your control, you will be released from the wrenching grip of stress and pain. Frank Ostaseski, in his book The Five Invitations, writes eloquently of forgiveness.

Resisting forgiveness is like grasping a hot coal and saying, “I’m not going to let go until you apologize and pay for what you’ve done to me.” In our effort to punish, we are the ones who get burned…By forgiving, we can release ourselves from suffering that has been confining us ever since the event took place…Forgiveness has the power to overcome what divides us. It can melt the armor of fear and resentment around our hearts that keeps us separate from others, from ourselves, and from life itself…It releases [us] from the rubble of anger and other negative feelings, and clears the way to love.

Of course, it is not controversial to say that people shouldn’t be anxious or fearful. Yet it is precisely because death seems so far off, and because we tend to cling to things that we wish were unchanging, that we cause ourselves to suffer worry, regret, fear and embarrassment. Just know that, in a few decades, everything will be different and that almost nothing you are worried or embarrassed about, afraid of, or otherwise perturbed by, will seem important upon reflection.

A good way to make sure that you’re maximizing your happiness potential is to ask yourself this question: will I remember this or care about it on my deathbed? We shouldn’t need to be on the cusp of death to realize that there are better ways to spend our time than in trivial temper tantrums or Twitter rants, and in the grip of regret, anger, dread and embarrassment. We are, in fact, always on the cusp of death, given that our lives are relatively short to begin with. It is well known that these things make us happy: living in the present moment with our loved ones; doing compassionate things like donating to charity; and engaging in activities and practices that we really care about. So why do otherwise?

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