My husband asked me a question yesterday that I’m sure many of you are asking. “Why are you posting about all the happiness stuff when you exist to serve those who are dying or grieving?” Good question, Babe.
My answer: Being happy in our life will make us happier when we approach end of life. Even more important, thinking about our death can actually help us be happier. Now. Let me explain.
I mentioned Bhutan in a previous post. For years, sociologists, anthropologists and other scientific types studied why Bhutan reported themselves as happier than other countries, and, lo and behold, it’s because they think about their deaths, a lot. Like, several times a day. Buddhist monks advise people to think about their deaths three times a day – morning, mid day, and evening. Even better, you should remember that you will die each time you walk out your front door. The Bhutanese even place the ashes of the departed into public art, not to memorialize the dead person, but death itself. Small clay pyramids containing cremains called tsa tsas are placed around town squares and public parks. Depictions of death are featured prominently in most of their works of art. Funerals are festive 21-day events involving hundreds of people. (The Secret to Happiness) Death is everywhere there.
It’s quite to opposite here. Our dead are whisked quickly away to a funeral home or mortuary. We have austere procedural funerals consisting of a few hours of togetherness on a weekend or evening where we do not have to miss much work. Our healthcare system, our media, our culture makes every attempt to distract us from, or even to make us deny the “downer” news that, yes, we will die one day. We spend our days cramming our lives with things or the pursuit of things. We have checklists and goals and productivity quotas to achieve. The busier we can keep ourselves, the longer we can avoid thinking about or acknowledging that our death is coming. When, instead, death is a universal guarantee.
As a culture, we cram our lives with consumerism, checklists and confrontation-avoidance in the pursuit of happiness. We focus forward. Always living in the future. One day I’ll have this or achieve that, and I’ll be happy. But living in the future removes us from living today. Right here. Right now. Because truthfully? You may not be alive tomorrow to acquire or achieve that stuff. And when we really come to terms with the fact that our best laid plans can all be for naught, what are we left with? When you can free your mind and your life of death-avoidance, and the anger, guilt and greed it causes us to feel, you can focus on the real purpose of living.
A study at the University of Kentucky found that when research participants were asked to contemplate death, they later reported richer, happier and more fulfilling lives than the participants who were asked to contemplate something painful. It seems that when the participants began to contemplate their deaths, they, consciously and unconsciously, began searching out happy thoughts. If they could not find enough happy memories and thoughts, they sought to make some. They did that by showing concern for others. (Psychological Science) They donated money or time or even blood. (Sound familiar?)
Research with people who are dying bears this out repeatedly. People who are dying are no longer focused on achievement and acquirement, all the petty everyday pursuits. They instead focus on what makes them happy and whether or not they are happy. Top regrets of those who are dying are being too busy working and thinking of the future, not the now, and realizing they were living life the way society told them they should instead of how they really could have been to be happy. They no longer worry about what they thought they could, should, or would have had, and instead focus on what they do have.
Don’t want to have those regrets on your deathbed? Realize you will one day be on one and start living the life you want and need to be happy and fulfilled today. Endless anecdotes exist from people who have been diagnosed with a life-limiting or terminal illnesses who decide to start living the life they always wanted. You probably know someone who has said as much. “I never really lived until I got my cancer diagnosis.” “I’d still be a miserable SOB if I hadn’t survived that heart attack last year. It changed my life.” Why wait? You are not invincible. You are not going to live forever on this mortal plain, and you probably won’t make it to 100. Life is short. Death is universal and inevitable. Death has always been one of our greatest teachers, and acknowledging it is one of our greatest gifts.
“If I die, knowing my family will remember and miss me fondly will be enough,” you think. Excellent! Family is important and a huge source of fulfillment and happiness in our lives, and you are so blessed to have that. Not everyone has such a blessing. So keep in mind, most people – even famous ones or those with lots of friends and family – are forgotten after three generations. How much do you know about your family that were great-great-greats or beyond? I’m pointing out this rather harsh fact to implore you to look beyond yourself – and yes, your family is still very much you – for your happiness and sense of purpose. The fact is none of us will be remembered forever any more than we will live forever. So make the biggest ripple you can away from you today. My whole point of this week’s posts, again: Happiness isn’t about you. It’s all about others.
And you? My sweet, dear, grieving friend. It feels impossible that you can be happy, right? Well, I promise to address that soon. In the meantime, try to get some rest and do something to experience a few minutes of joy each day, and we’ll explore the coexistence of grief and happiness next week.