Reconciling With Mortality: Why You Should Think About Death

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Comfort Crisis" by Michael Easter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you come to grips with the fact that you’re going to die one day? Do you avoid thinking about death?

The comforts we live with today don’t impact just our bodies; they influence our minds as well. With so many distractions, it’s easy to numb our minds and avoid thinking about things that are uncomfortable to confront. But, Michael Easter says letting your mind go to uncomfortable places is important for happiness.

Read on for a practical discussion about this internal discomfort and the benefits that thinking about death can offer.

Why You Should Think About Death

In modern Western society, we typically hide from thinking about death because it’s uncomfortable. 80% of Westerners feel discomfort with the idea of death, and only half of the people over the age of 65 have considered how they’d prefer to die.

Instead of recognizing the reality of our mortality, Easter explains that Westerners are commonly lost in the illusion of our permanence. When consulting a Bhutanese monk about this issue, the monk told Easter that our illusion of permanence causes us to distract ourselves with material pleasures and put off thinking about death.

For example, Americans work an average of 47 hours each week and take pride in acquiring material things like big houses and new cars. However, research shows that once our basic survival needs are met (a safe home, enough food to eat, and so on), material accumulation doesn’t make us any happier. In fact, being too materialistic can make us less satisfied with our lives. For example, Easter refers to an Australian study that shows the most common regrets people have on their deathbed include working too much and not enjoying the present moment enough.

(Shortform note: One expert argues that Americans’ materialistic philosophy that underlies a denial of death is partly based on expectations that modern technologies can extend our lifespans. For example, America is home to 28 of the world’s 38 anti-aging labs. Another reason that death and aging are pushed to the wayside in the US is that Americans don’t value their elders as much as other nations do. This is because Americans tend to associate old age with frailty and incompetence, whereas traditional Asian cultures typically respect the positive qualities that elderly people possess, such as more life experience and wisdom.)

Reconcile With the Reality of Death

By considering death, you’ll feel more happy, free, compassionate, and grateful. Easter says one study found that people on their deathbeds felt more satisfied with their lives when they were asked to regularly discuss their death during the days before they died.

Realizing that death can come at any moment orients you with whatever matters most to you. Thus, you become less consumed by the petty struggles of daily life and do more of what makes you truly happy. When you realize material gains will not matter in the end, you’ll also be less anxious or greedy and instead become more compassionate and generous with your time. Easter cites one study that found people who were asked to think about death were more likely to donate money, offer their time to others, and give blood at a blood bank.

Finally, thinking about death helps you realize how precious your life is. Gratitude has been shown to reduce anxiety and lower your risk of heart disease. To become sufficiently acquainted with death, Easter recommends reminding yourself of death in the morning, at midday, and in the evening.

(Shortform note: To meditate on death more regularly, Ryan Holiday (author of The Obstacle Is the Way and other books on stoicism) suggests using a “Memento Mori Calendar” that displays the number of weeks in an 80-year life as boxes on one page. He checks these boxes as a visual reminder of the time he likely has left to live—a literal “dead”-line. Holiday also recommends carrying a reminder of your mortality with you throughout your day, like this coin that reads “memento mori,” Latin for “remember that you will die.”

Reconciling With Mortality: Why You Should Think About Death

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Easter's "The Comfort Crisis" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Comfort Crisis summary:

  • Why a modern, comfortable lifestyle is bad for health and happiness
  • Why discomforts such as being in nature, fasting, and exercising are important
  • Tips on how to make discomfort your friend

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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