Want to be happy? Think about death more.
MY MORNING SCHEDULE GOES something like this:
5 am — Wake up
5:10 am — Coffee + Bloomberg Business news
6 am — Gym
7 am — Shower
7:15 am — Think about death
7:20 am — Breakfast
HOLD UP. WHAT? You read that right: think about death. And hey, this is just one out of at least 5 times a day I mentally dive into the grim. Why the hell would you do that, Dee? Simple — it makes me happy. And I’m not the only one out there.
The Bhutanese secret to happiness
This notion isn’t new at all. I recently stumbled upon an article about Bhutan’s “dark” secret to happiness: thinking about death. By doing so, you vividly picture the end of your time and a) feel sad b) get scared or c) all of the above, and pull out the list of regrets, mostly things you didn’t do because you ran out of time. On a visit to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, author Eric Weiner got some very unorthodox advice from a man named Karma Ura, the Director of the Center for Bhutan Studies. “Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist,” Ura said. But why would we be thinking about that while we sit in our cozy offices, sipping on Starbucks and playing Angry Birds on our expensive iPhones?
Because we like to feel safe. That’s human nature. But safety is a double-edged sword. It feels good to have a stable paycheck and a roof over your head, but the in many cases the price for that is to give up on crossing South America on the back of a motorcycle, or spending a year meditating with the Buddhist monks in Tibet. The idea of foreign adventures seems far-fetched, so we let it go and buy into the comfort and predictability of a stable job. The natural response to thinking about death is distraction. Why not pop a Xanax or curl up in a blanket watching Netflix and carving out the inside of a Ben & Jerry’s instead?
When Weiner broke down into a panic attack in front of Karma Ura, Ura prescribed the right medication: “You need to think about death for five minutes every day, it will cure you.”
“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”
What would you do when faced with your own death?
I came to Ura’s way of thinking myself a long time ago when I stumbled upon the German philosopher Heidegger’s analysis of Sophocles’ play, Antigone. If you haven’t seen the play, Antigone, a young woman and the daughter of Oedipus, was locked up in a dungeon and sentenced to death for breaking the law in her defense of family values. The more she thought about her death, the clearer her destiny became: she had to end her own life in order to live on as an example of standing up for one’s beliefs. Instead of freaking her out, the thought of death was a mental home run, allowing her to realize what it was that she most valued and guiding her to the right course of action.
So, like Antigone, I asked myself: if I died tomorrow, what would I wish I had done? The answer was right there — travel. So, at the age of 16, I landed a full scholarship to move to the United States from Bulgaria. With the end of that year approached the jarring question: would going back to Bulgaria, finishing school and settling for a cubicle and three kids in Sofia be what I wanted to do for the rest of my life?
Not a chance. So I managed to extend my year abroad to two, and by putting in long nights of study, I got accepted with a full-ride to an elite university that my family wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. After graduation, I went into a 9-to-5 finance job and absolutely hated it, so I asked myself again: if I ceased to exist tomorrow, would I be happy with the direction my life has taken? The answer again was no, so I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Bali where I could be teach English.
So here is the advice from someone who’s taken a lot of risks in her life: accept your death. Embrace it. More importantly, get in touch with your inner desires and follow them even if it terrifies you. Embark on your own adventurous path and don’t hold back. Once you do, you’ll see that it’s not scary on the other side and your only regret would be not doing so earlier.