Accepting one’s mortality brings one closer to living a meaningful life.
In my work, I’ve met entrepreneurs who’ve made mindfulness and meditation the core of their lives. Indeed, with the Information Age confronting us with a massive amount of material, we need the headspace to remain clear-eyed about our purpose and goals: Facing our mortality is one way to go about it.
Recognising that death comes for all of us can be a powerful force in helping us to cope with setbacks and seize opportunities. In Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, he said, “All expectations fall away in the face of death, leaving what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."
Embracing death can bring about a sense of peace too, by sharpening one’s focus on how to live. This usually hits home with the loss of a loved one. When my father died two years ago, my sometimes-consuming anxiety suddenly seemed trivial. The Buddhist practice of maranasati, or contemplation of one’s death, has a similar effect. By consciously accepting, even visualising, one’s death, practitioners come to terms with their priorities amid the mental noise.
Confronting mortality, even someone else’s, can also drive us to noble actions. After 2011’s devastating tsunami in Japan, workers of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant risked their lives to prevent a nuclear meltdown. In a 2013 Guardian interview, engineer Atsufumi Yoshizawa revealed, "I wasn't thinking about my family, only about the other workers and how worried they must be about their families (living nearby). We knew we would be there until the end.”
Recognising that death comes for all of us can be a powerful force in helping us to seize opportunities.
Is the pursuit of happiness a better motivator, though? Surprisingly, our view of happiness is relatively modern. It hews close to 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ subjective definition of happiness, which lies in acquiring pleasurable experiences. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, happiness was objective and linked to virtue; a stranger could definitively judge if you were happy.
According to historian David Wootton, “In the pre-Hobbesian world, ambition, the desire to get ahead and do better than others, was condemned as a vice. In the post-Hobbesian world, it became admirable, a spur to improvement and progress.” The invention of subjectivity led individuals on the path to find their own happiness.
Today, we are familiar with the concept of healthy competition. We desire happiness but, unlike the ancients, different things please different people. Besides, happiness can be fickle – diminishing the moment a desire is met, leaving you continually seeking something else.
“To smell fresh earth is wholesome for the body; no less are thoughts of mortality cordial to the soul,” wrote historian Thomas Fuller. Death is universal, the barometer of happiness is not, but finding meaning in life – that is the great equaliser.
To do better, and to do good; surely, those are the hallmarks of a meaningful life. Being cognisant of death brings one closer to that.