Death Is a Natural Part of Life—And That’s a Happy Thought

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Happy" by Derren Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Death is a natural part of life—how can this thought help you to be happier today? How can you learn to be comfortable with the idea of death?

While death is a natural part of life, most of modern society is uncomfortable with the idea of death and even more uncomfortable with discussions of dying. Author Derren Brown says that by embracing mortality, we can defeat our fear of death and live happier lives in the present.

Read on to learn how to be more comfortable with the idea that death is a natural part of life, according to Brown.

Death as a Part of Life

While anger, envy, and desire are all fleeting, there is one permanent fixture in life that can cloud our present happiness—the fear of our eventual death. While death is a natural part of life that most of us would rather not think about, Happy author Derren Brown claims that if we look at what the experience of dying can teach us, it can help us be happier today. Brown discusses philosophical thoughts about death before suggesting the value of embracing your mortality so that you don’t end life with a mountain of regrets.

(Shortform note: In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande laments the fact that in modern culture we don’t prepare ourselves for death. Part of this is because of our greatly expanded lifespans—we’re simply not accustomed to seeing death on a regular basis. Our modern focus instead has become prolonging life by any means necessary, whether or not we’re able to enjoy it.)

In considering death as a natural part of life, Brown begins by asking provocatively whether death can actually harm us. Epicurus’s answer was “no,” because we won’t exist anymore when it happens. As long as we’re alive, we’re not dead. Once we’re dead, we’re no longer here to care. Like falling asleep, death itself isn’t something we’ll experience or remember. Brown isn’t fully satisfied with this answer, because he notes that it’s the process of dying that we fear, as well as the loss of future years that death takes from us. We value the years before us differently than we do the past. It’s the future that gives our lives meaning.

Death thwarts our desire to achieve and experience more in the future, but Brown suggests that if we can lessen our feelings of attachment toward the future, if we can learn to let it go and instead reframe our story so that we can look back on our lives without regret, then death loses its power to scare us. (Which, Brown admits, is easier in the abstract, but hard to accept when staring death in the face.)

The Death Positive Movement

While it’s hard to be dismissive of death, as Epicurus seems to suggest, it can be liberating and uplifting to talk about death and readjust our attitudes toward it. The last few decades have seen the rise of the Death Positive Movement, a growing trend of ways for people to become more accepting of death, including at-home hospice care, eco-friendly burials, and Death Café clubs where people are invited to discuss their thoughts on mortality over snacks. This movement has developed as a reaction against the taboos Western culture puts around talking about death, in essence rebranding death as something not to fear.

In The Untethered Soul, Michael A. Singer casts death in the role of a spiritual teacher that can actually help you be more courageous and loving. To facilitate this, Singer suggests that you think about death when you feel negative emotions such as anger or envy. This will put your feelings in perspective by forcing you to ask what will matter when you’re gone. 

Owning Your Death

However, Brown asserts that confronting death as a natural part of life can empower us to take control and prioritize what’s important in our lives. The way to balance between acknowledging death’s value while admitting that we don’t want to die yet is to embrace transience and accept that everything changes. He quotes Sigmund Freud, who argued that beauty doesn’t need to persist to be worthwhile. When contemplating the transient beauty of a flower, or that of an entire human life, the fact of its impermanence does nothing to lessen its value.

The problem isn’t that we’ll experience loss, but that we exert so much energy fighting against it. The truth is that we spend our entire lives losing people, possessions, and experiences we value. Brown doesn’t suggest that we should become so detached that we don’t grieve the people we lose—grief is an honest expression of love. Rather, we must acknowledge that life is a process of continual growth in which things pass away to make room for the new.

A Buddhist Approach to Death

The teachings of Buddhism have always emphasized recognizing and accepting the impermanence of life, as Brown recommends. According to tradition, it was the problem of death that motivated the Buddha to begin his spiritual quest. Buddhism teaches that meditating on death and the impermanence of life makes every moment you experience precious.

In Radical Acceptance, psychologist and practicing Buddhist Tara Brach says that we should welcome the experiences that we fear, such as dying. Doing so will let us be more present in our lives and stop us from prolonging the anxiety that clouds the good things we experience. She explains that in Buddhism, we are beings of awareness who exist in the moment—there is no true individual “self,” and therefore nothing is actually lost when we die. 

Therefore, Brown argues that instead of fearing your inevitable end, you should fully accept and own your death as an empowering part of your life. Doing so gives you a chance to bring closure to your life that death itself doesn’t provide. To highlight this, he asks us to think about the end-of-life regrets that many people face—not having been true to themselves, never expressing their feelings, and not letting themselves be happy more often. People diagnosed with terminal illness are often shocked into reevaluating their priorities and the stories they tell themselves about their lives. If we consider that end-of-life narrative now, it can guide us to better choices in the present that balance our plans for the future with opportunities for happiness in the moment.

(Shortform note: Brown briefly references Being Mortal, in which Atul Gawande says that a vital first step in engaging with your end-of-life experience is to have frank discussions about aging and dying, not only with your doctors but with friends and loved ones. It’s important not to let others dominate these conversations, but to be clear about your hopes, fears, and wishes concerning how you would like your final days (and those after) to be managed.)

Whether or not we believe in life after death, Brown says there’s one afterlife we can be sure of—that life will go on without us. Most of us want our lives to have had a positive impact. If we want people to remember us fondly, we need to be able to see ourselves from an outside perspective. If we live a well-balanced life, being mindful of our thoughts and actions, then not only can we find contentment in the present, but the positive effects of what we do may ripple into the future. Perhaps we can find some happiness in that.

(Shortform note: While the core of our identity as we experience it may end in death, our identity as it’s perceived by others will carry on. That identity remains fluid as others reevaluate our lives and how we’re remembered. One way to maintain responsibility for our stories is to leave some form of permanent record. Even if you’re not up to writing a memoir, you can keep a collection of your own vital records or allow your family members to record your stories in your words. You can do this for your loved ones as well, and resources to do so are available online.)

Death Is a Natural Part of Life—And That’s a Happy Thought

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  • The definition of happy, according to ancient Greek philosophers and Stoics
  • The importance of balancing desires with realities
  • How to overcome the three biggest barriers to happiness

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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