You can’t appreciate being alive until you accept that you’re going to die.
Memento mori is Latin, and it means “remember you’re mortal”.
Why do I want you to remember that?
Thinking about your death is the last thing you were hoping to do today, I’m sure.
But, oddly enough, it’s only when we keep death in mind that we become truly grateful for life.
I mean, think about it. Technically, you could keel over at any minute.
You could check out for the last time right now, or tomorrow, or a week from now, or a month from now, or a year from now.
We should all be grateful just to be alive!
And we should enjoy life while we can.
This idea of memento mori was proposed by the ancient Stoics over 2,000 years ago.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think… When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”– Marcus Aurelius
More recently, researchers tested this idea in the laboratory by measuring initial levels of gratitude among participants before placing them in three groups.
The groups were told to:
- visualise their daily routine,
- write down their thoughts and feelings about death, or
- imagine themselves dying in a real-life scenario.
In the scenario, researchers told the participants to imagine themselves trapped by a fire on the 20th floor of an old, downtown building, and having made futile attempts to escape the room and burning building before finally giving into the fire and their eventual death.
After the exercises, participants again reported on how grateful they felt.
The people who visualised their daily routine seemed slightly less grateful than before, and the ones who wrote about death in an abstract way didn’t feel any more grateful after the exercise.
However, the gratitude levels of the people who imagined their own deaths in vivid detail went through the roof.
They seemed deeply affected by contemplating their own mortality in a specific and visceral way.
The researchers concluded; “Because our very existence is a constant benefit that we adapt to easily, this is a benefit that is easily taken for granted”.
They also said that reflecting on your own death can help you take stock of the benefit of being alive, which consequently increases your appreciation for life.
The study is well-aligned with the stories of people who’ve had near-death experiences, or life-threatening diseases – who typically report feeling more grateful for life.
For obvious reasons, this exercise can lead to distressing emotions.
But if you can withstand them, such as fear or panic, you can also experience more deeply positive emotions.
If you’re up for it, you can find the exercise in its entirety down below.
If you want to skip this, I totally understand. This isn’t an easy one.
If you don’t want to do the exercise below, set a timer for yourself at 10 minutes and do a free-writing exercise.
Take a blank page and just start writing!
The first word or thought that pops into your head, just write it down and take it from there.
In any case, I’m overjoyed you’ve made it this far. And I’ll catch up with you again tomorrow.
Deep breaths, here we go.
Imagine that you are visiting a friend who lives on the 20th floor of an old, downtown apartment building. It’s the middle of the night when you are suddenly awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of screams and the choking smell of smoke.
You reach over to the nightstand and turn on the light.
You are shocked to find the room filling fast with thick clouds of smoke.
You run to the door and reach for the handle. You pull back in pain as the intense heat of the knob scalds you violently.
Grabbing a blanket off the bed and using it as protection, you manage to turn the handle and open the door. Almost immediately, a huge wave of flame and smoke roars into the room, knocking you back and literally off your feet.
There is no way to leave the room. It is getting very hard to breathe, and the heat from the flames is almost unbearable.
Panicked, you scramble to the only window in the room and try to open it. As you struggle, you realise the old window is virtually painted shut around all the edges.
It doesn’t budge. Your eyes are barely open now, filled with tears from the smoke. You try calling out for help, but the air to form the words is not there.
You drop to the floor hoping to escape the rising smoke, but it is too late. The room is filled top to bottom with thick fumes and nearly entirely in flames.
With your heart pounding, it suddenly hits you, as time seems to stand still, that you are literally moments away from dying. The inevitable unknown that was always waiting for you has finally arrived.
Out of breath and weak, you shut your eyes and wait for the end.
Please describe in detail the thoughts and emotions you felt while imagining the scenario.
If you did experience this event, how do you think you would handle the final moments?
Again, imagining it did happen to you, describe the life you led up to that point.
How do you feel your family would react if it did happen to you?