Jun 03, 2011
Reflecting on death is oddly life-enhancing
Well, there’s a good reason why. It can make you a happier and better person.
In an experiment in the UK, people were asked to reflect about death in an abstract way, were asked to imagine their own death, or (as a control) were asked to imagine toothache.
Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate.
People who thought about death in the abstract were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. But people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed.
Thinking about death — your own death — can make you realize what’s important in life. That’s one reason why the Buddha suggested that we should reflect frequently:
- I’m going to get old
- I’m going to get sick
- I’m going to die
- I’m going to be separated from all that’s dear to me
There’s a fifth reflection that’s a part of this set as well:
- I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’
To sum that up, life is short, and you’re responsible for what you do with it. The clear implication is that with all that in mind we’re more likely to live well, paying attention to those things — like helping others — that are really important.