Monk Contemplating a Skull (1875), Thomas Couture (1815-1879)
To be happier, start thinking more about your death!
This essay by Arthur C. Brooks first appeared in the New York Times on January 9, 2016; thus, all the references to the new year and New Year’s resolutions. It is by no means Christian meditation, but it contains the truth of Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” I have made a few slight alterations in the text.
Want a better 2016? Try thinking more about your impending demise.
Years ago on a visit to Thailand, I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks often contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself recommended corpse meditation. “This body, too, will decay” students were taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” Paradoxically, such meditation on death is intended as a key to better living. It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and life’s larger issues. In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”
In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment. In a 2004 article in the journal Science a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction. Not so. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship, and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem. The ‘American Time Use Survey’ from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.” The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.
This misalignment leads to despair and regret. I’m reminded of a friend who was hopelessly addicted to British crossword puzzles. A harmless pastime, right? My friend didn’t think so — he was so racked with guilt after wasting hours that he consulted a psychotherapist about how to quit. (The advice: Schedule a reasonable amount of time for crosswords and stop feeling guilty.)
While few people share my friend’s interest, many share his anxiety. Millions have resolved to waste less time in 2016 and have already failed… Some might say that this reveals our true preferences for TV and websurfing over loved ones and God. But I believe it is an error in decision making. Our days tend to be an exercise in distraction. We think about the past and future more than the present; we are mentally in one place and physically in another. Without consciousness, we mindlessly blow the present moment on low-value activities.
The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.
If contemplating a corpse is a bit too much, you can still practice some of the Buddha’s wisdom by resolving to live as if this were your last year. Then remorselessly root out activities, small and large, that don’t pass the “last-year test.”
There are many creative ways to practice this test. For example, if you plan a summer vacation, consider what you would do for a week or two if this were your last opportunity. With whom would you reconnect and spend some time? Would you settle your soul on a silent retreat, or instead spend the time drunk in Cancún, Mexico?
If this year were your last, would you spend the next hour mindlessly checking your social media, or would you read something that uplifts you instead? Would you compose a snarky comment on this article, or use the time to call a friend to see how she is doing?
Some might think that the last-year test is impractical. As an acquaintance of mine joked, “If I had one year to live, I’d run up my credit cards.” In truth, he probably wouldn’t. In a new paper in the science journal PLOS One, two psychologists looked at the present value of money when people contemplated death. One might assume that when reminded of death, people would greatly value current spending over future spending. But that’s not how it turned out. Considering death actually made respondents less likely to want to blow money now than other scenarios did.
There’s still time to rethink your resolutions. Forget losing weight and saving money. Those are New Year’s resolutions for amateurs. This year, improve your alignment. Be fully alive now by meditating on your demise.
Psalm 90:10…12 — Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, and they quickly pass, and we fly away… So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 39:4-5 — Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.
II Corinthians 4:18 — So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Teach me to number my days aright, O Lord, and so apply my heart unto wisdom. Amen.