The Hidden Power of Pandemics: Mortality Motivation

MM is an enormous energy generated and liberated by accepting death and dying.

Posted Jan 09, 2021

Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) was first identified in an outbreak of respiratory illnesses in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. On Jan. 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global health emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the salience of death. Thus far, there are more than 89 million COVID cases in the world. In the USA alone, there have been 22 million cases and over 364 thousand deaths. The death rate from COVID is over 1,000 per 1 million cases. New variants of the virus have been detected. Media is saturated with images of dying patients in hospitals. Stories of patients dying alone without even a funeral are everywhere we turn. Healthcare providers indicate that patients are dying like flies. But there is good news.

We all know that we will die one day. We do not know the exact moment, day, week, year, or what we will be doing at that moment, but we are a hundred percent sure that we are mortal. This idea causes enormous anxiety for most of us. The solution is to bury the idea of mortality in the deepest grave, our unconscious—or is it? Preventing the schema of ‘death’ from our stream of consciousness allows us to live—or does it? Not true, facing our mortality allows us to live life more fully! 

COVID has pushed our schema of mortality into our conscious awareness. Overnight, we realized that we have limited time to accomplish 'X.' For some, this reminder has provided mortality motivation. I define mortality motivation as enormous energy generated and liberated by accepting that we are mortal, and that our time is limited. Suppressing our fears of death and denying mortality require brain fuel. This fuel subtracts from our ability to live life fully or even live. This lost fuel constricts our brains’ creativity space and shrinks the range of possibilities. The solution is to fully accept that we are going to die and therefore we need to sculpt a life worth living. Death does not only have a role in life, but it gives birth to life. Most of what we do is motivated by avoiding the inevitability of death. But, imagine if most of what we do is motivated by accepting death.

Acknowledgment of death is necessary but not sufficient to motivate us. In fact, for some people, reminders of death erect tremendous anxiety. What differentiates people who grow from those who shrink after mortality reminders? Many factors! In one study, mortality salience increased anxiety but only in participants with low self-esteem (1). In addition, mortality reminders reduced intellectual exploration but only in participants with low self-esteem. These reminders increased negative affect and reduced meaning but again only in individuals with low self-esteem. In other words, we need adequate self-esteem to activate mortality motivation, otherwise it can backfire.

Also, the threat of dying and illness pushes our biology into survival mode. This mode affects all our organs including the brain. Survival biology sharpens our cognitive abilities such as decision making, memory, focus, and perception. To elaborate, we arrogantly believe that we can watch TV, respond to phone notifications, and work all at the same time. We actually do not multi-task, we shift quickly among tasks. Multitasking has the same effects on cognitive abilities as smoking pot and causes new information to be stored in the wrong brain area (2). Survival biology as invoked by reminders of death narrows our attention and compels us to focus on what is important at the moment.

Procrastinators are under the false impression that time is limitless. Mortality motivation may provide the reminders that procrastinators need to initiate and complete tasks. Similarly, perfectionists who cannot complete a task, because it will never be perfect enough. They realize that life is not long enough for any perfection to come to fruition. As Steve Jobs sagely indicated "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

Some patients only live once they get diagnosed with terminal illness. Only then do they entertain questions about the meaning of life through avenues such as palliative care. In their preparation for dying, they live life fully. Why only inquire about life meaning and purpose at the end of life? I think we should all prepare for death at our healthiest moments. There is more to life than working to earn a paycheck so we can spend it. Embracing death and dying irrigates every present moment with enough oxygen to live.

The gift of life is only unpacked once we accept our mortality and face fears about dying. Why don’t you begin by pondering the following question?

  • Define 'being mortal,' 'dying,' and 'death'?
  • What are your greatest fears about 'being mortal,' 'dying,' and 'death'?
  • What risk is worth living and dying for?
  • If you have one year to live, what would you change today? Which people would you keep, and who would you block?
  • If you have one year to live, what would you finally have the courage to do?

Different cultures and religions disagree on how many times we live, but they all agree that we die once. Instead of YOLO (you only live once), I prefer YODO (you only die once). Everyone dies, but not everyone lives. Harness mortality motivation to accomplish your dreams. Personally, I have "Motivated by Death To-Do List—MDD" posted on my home office wall.


(1) Routledge, C., Ostafin, B., Juhl, J., Sedikides, C., Cathey, C., & Liao, J. (2010). Adjusting to death: The effects of mortality salience and self-esteem on psychological well-being, growth motivation, and maladaptive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 897–916.

(2) University of California—Los Angeles. (2006, July 26). Multi-tasking Adversely Affects Brain's Learning, UCLA Psychologists Report. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 9, 2021 from