In my 20s, I lived my life implicitly under the assumption that I would live forever. This state of ignorance has a number of advantages:
- There is not much need to fear missing out. I can just try something out and do something else later, there is no need to overthink decisions
- If I want something I do not have, I can tell myself I can work towards having it or something similar, and will probably get it eventually
- Any problem I currently have can be mentally reframed with a growth mindset: Whatever skill I am lacking I can learn
- I can be generous with time towards others, and in that way avoid many difficult conversations where I say no to requests, because there is always time later for my own priorities
There is a wonderful lightness in living in such a carefree way, focusing on what we enjoy doing in the moment. Now at 31, with early visible signs of ageing beginning to appear, and the biological clock becoming more relevant for potential partners (representing a sort of mini death of possibilities) I am more and more drawn to thinking about death. Below are some of the approaches I have seen on how to address our mortality:
The most obvious answer is to try to make the problem go away, and of course there is an enthusiastic community investigating life extension in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Those interventions should (and do) increase health span not just life span, i.e. delay the diseases associated with ageing. So far, what everyone agrees on are mostly still the basics, which luckily also improve quality of life
- An exercise regime including strength, high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio (“Zone 2 training”, which is thought to have different benefits to high intensity training), balance and flexibility
- Avoiding processed foods, especially ones involving added sugar or nitrites
- 8 hours of sleep opportunity
- Destressing, e.g. through avoiding overwork, having a strong loving social support network we feel comfortable being vulnerable with, and practices such as meditation, breathwork or emotional release
What is clear is that this alone will not get us a dramatically long health span, it only optimises our chances to live until something like 90. What is discovered in terms of supplements and pharmaceuticals shows some promise, but so far appears mostly incremental.
Due to uncertainty about how things will develop going forward, I make an effort to extend my healthspan while trying to not get too attached to the outcome, and being prepared for two scenarios:
- Living with the current life expectancy, or of course it being cut short through an accident or sickness. This means we should not delay experiences that are important to us for too long, including ones that require commitment
- A dramatically longer life expectancy of potentially hundreds of years, if the relevant technologies do come through fast enough. That means being more cautious about risks of permanent injury or death than we would be if we only had the normal life expectancy on the table, in order to realise the full potential of a long life
Making the most of what we got
The big risk of ignoring thinking about death completely because of the grief those thoughts can bring, is that we make decisions that we later regret when the reality of mortality eventually reaches us, e.g. during a midlife crisis. While we can of course talk endlessly about how to live the best possible life, I believe there are a few key points where death affects what makes sense to do: In the face of death we can less afford certain lazy choices. Delaying decisions for a long time means that we will not experience certain things we can only experience through commitment. A big one for me was letting go of succeeding in difficult challenges that satisfy my ego, but do not help improve my life much in the long run (e.g. I enjoyed studying fundamental physics, but I would be less drawn to it now). Delayed gratification, so often praised in self improvement content, has its obvious limits if gratification is delayed to such a degree that life just passes by without being enjoyed. We can give permission to treat ourselves nicely everyday. We want to try to make sure that we enjoy most of the activities we engage in day to day, both by choosing the right activities, as well as a mindset of presence, calm, compassion and curiosity
The solution is to invest more fully in atelic activities like going for a walk, spending time with friends, appreciating art or nature, parenting or working hard. There may not be a change in what you do from day to day. It is enough to adjust your attitude, what you love: to value not just projects, but the process of raising kids, maintaining friendships, doing your job.Midlife by Kieran Setiya
On the other hand we do want to work on improving our life – in addition to the joy of that work in itself, it gives us something to look forward to, to compensate for the eventual physical deterioration. This can include:
- Deeper and more meaningful relationships
- Working through our issues and the associated increased inner peace
- Better understanding of what we like (e.g. in terms of people, environments and activities) and designing our life around it
- Improved material standards and the new experiences this opens up as well as removal of certain worries and inconveniences
This does not prevent us from enjoying the process of improving our life, as well as the outcomes.
One approach to keeping death in mind when making decisions is the following death meditation from buddhism:
- If you died tomorrow, what would you do?
- If you died in a week what would you do?
- If you died in a year, what would you do?
- If you were on your deathbed now, how would you feel?”
There are several ways to go astray if trying to make the most of life. We can feel a sense of urgency that itself takes the joy out of life. The opposite of that would be to accept a simpler, less impressive in a flashy way maybe, but calmer and more peaceful life full of dignity. The sense of urgency can be especially strong when first coming to terms with mortality – I feel that I initially started assuming that life is shorter than it really is, that I am running out of time, when really I still have the majority of life ahead of me. We can become perfectionistic and develop an inner critic scolding ourselves for not living optimally – In fact, having self compassion (including self compassion for lacking self compassion) is one way to make the most of life.
One aspect I am still looking for a balance for is how generous to be with my time towards others. Saying no to others’ demands for our time is often encouraged, e.g.
I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself – as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing givenThe Shortness of Life by Seneca
Saying no is definitely something that often needs to be done to not end up with a life that is controlled by others, especially ones who are very demanding without reciprocating. Except for those bigger examples I like to not embrace this perspective too much however, because life feels warmer when I give somewhat readily without overthinking it. It strengthens relationships as well as feeling rewarding in itself.
Grieving and acceptance
In order to be able to make the most of what we got, we need to allow the reality of a finite lifespan into our consciousness.
While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realization, but rather come to terms with it as best we can.The Subtle Art of not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
This may lead to feelings of sadness. Luckily, if we allow this sadness, we can grieve the loss of the illusion of immortality, and the sadness gradually mellows. Our happiness tends to revert to a set point despite changing circumstances (in this case a changing perception of circumstances) through hedonic adaptation.
The force that there is something that is going to take me out is something I cannot control, so I might as well make peace with it
What do you do about a heartbreak? You cry, you cryMidnight Gospel S1E8
The smaller losses we have in life, such as breakups or decisions that remove possible life paths, can be seen as small deaths that may also need to be grieved (while making sure to also notice the gains that come with them, whether through what you committed to, or simply that space is freed up to find something new) – I feel there is a synergy between accepting those losses and the impermanence of life as a whole. In addition, through meditation we can consciously experience impermanence (mainly of our thoughts, feelings and emotional sensations) and get comfortable with it to a certain degree.
Gratitude for what we have in the face of impermanence
Instead of despairing on the shortness of life, we can cultivate gratitude for the moments we do have. Gratitude is not just pleasant, it also makes logical sense: Since we are not conscious when we are dead, being dead is really not that bad, it is neutral – instead being alive is positive, and something worth celebrating. This is a principle that can apply to many things that we likely eventually lose, such as relationships especially with people older than us, or simply the experience of joy. Gratitude can also be used as an antidote to the fear of missing out: Instead of being sad that we cannot have all experiences that life offers, we can be grateful that there are always lots of options available to experience if we want to, e.g. more countries to visit, things to learn and people to get to know if we want to, rather than being bothered by not having time to do all of those things. One factor that helps gratitude is that we have more detailed knowledge of what we have than of what we do not have. We can focus on these details to help our appreciation, and divert attention from what we do not have. In a sense that helps us fall in love with the life we have in a similar way to how we uniquely appreciate the individual personality traits of someone we love, even though we could also love another person with different quirks.
Gratitude is harder during difficult times. Though it can still be helpful to remind ourselves of the positive things we still have during those times, it might be better to focus on improving life rather than worrying about its shortness.
Seeing the positive in mortality
An even stronger stance is to actually be grateful for the impermanence of life. Some people find death gives life, and especially decisions, meaning, e.g.
Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zeroThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
The sense of urgency can help us make difficult choices and have difficult conversations that we may otherwise delay indefinitely, thereby helping improve our lives. We may think about what is truly important more deeply than we otherwise would. Some people also feel like knowledge of mortality makes them experience life more fully, e.g.
The closer I am to physical death, the more alive I feel, the more present I feel, the more real I amMidnight Gospel S1E8
Some believe that impermanence enables activities being enjoyable, e.g. posing the question “Would you enjoy eating a cake if you keep eating it forever?” – what this ignores in my view however is that there is an almost infinite amount of possibilities of how to live our lives, if we want impermanence we can always choose to make changes. At the very least, I believe it is possible to fill a lifetime of at least several hundred years with interesting things to do, as well as experiencing everything more deeply by cultivating more and more presence, awareness and curiosity. Finally, a societal argument can be made that old people need to die to make space for their descendants, and to enable cultural progress.
I personally struggle to embrace any of these lines of thinking, but I think this approach can be helpful for many people. Viewing something positively has an emotional value in itself, especially if we cannot do much to change it.
We can create a sort of immortality by creating impact in the world that extends beyond our lifetime, whether through meaningful paid or unpaid work, day to day influence on the people around us or having children, e.g. explained like this
This body of mine will disintegrate, but my actions will continue me. In my daily life, I always practice to see my continuation around me. We don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue.. we continue in every moment. If you think I am only this body, then you have not truly seen me. When you look at my friends, you see my continuation. When you see someone walking with mindfulness and compassion, you know he is my continuation. I don’t see why we have to say “I will die”, because I can already see myself in you, in other people, and in future generations.Thich Nhat Hanh
To me, having a significant and lasting impact appears meaningful quite independently of my lifespan.
Ignorance / not thinking about it
We can also simply strive to avoid the difficult thoughts and feelings associated with thinking about death, similar to what I described in the beginning but more intentionally, using one of two approaches:
- Being optimistic that life extension technologies will have a massive impact
- Simply avoiding / letting go of the thoughts in the day to day, e.g. through distraction, meditation, or a focus on the present moment, taking the lack of worry animals experience as an inspiration
Putting it all together
I think that life extension always plays an important role, the earlier we start with it the better. Which of the other approaches is most useful however depends on where we are in life: Ignorance seems like the right approach for a small child. Thinking of how to make the most of it, and the grief and acceptance that is required for it, can already make sense as early as the teenage years in my view. Not thinking about it, when mentally possible, can make sense if we have taken a number of decisions that take into account our limited lifespan, and do not want to question those decisions for the time being – there are times and places to think about death, but probably not all times and places, unless you experience that such constant awareness improves your appreciation of each moment. Gratitude, while always valuable (I think this is probably the most important of all the approaches), becomes more and more important the more commitments are made – we want to appreciate all that is wonderful about the life we have chosen. Finally, I expect legacy, and the appreciation of it, to play an important role towards the later years.