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Three Good Things about Death: A Personal Experiment

Could a gratitude exercise help someone face death?

"Young Woman Contemplating a Skull," by Alessandro Casolani, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Source: "Young Woman Contemplating a Skull," by Alessandro Casolani, Wikimedia, Public Domain

As I've gotten older, I think about my own death more often. It's a shocking thought. I never fully realized that when the ancient philosopher said, “All men are mortal,” he was referring to me! Now I know that he was.

Of course, I could live for another 30 years or trip on the street and die within the hour. But I will die sometime. I am trying to make peace with this idea, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. Here today, gone tomorrow? The thought makes me shudder.

I am enjoying life too much to think of The End. Like many older people, I’ve learned to cherish and savor each day. I don’t even care if the weather is bad or good. It’s all good to me. Because, as the old song says, “I’m still here.” And I don’t want to go, thank you very much.

One day it occurred to me that perhaps I could use the “Three Good Things” exercise to help myself deal with the Big D. This exercise is a well-researched way to increase personal happiness and gratitude. In just one of many experiments, researchers asked college students to write down three good things that had happened to them each day for a week, along with their interpretations of why those things had happened. The results were amazing. The experimental group saw their happiness levels soar, not just immediately but for the next six months. This was after only one week of practicing gratitude!

Similar gratitude exercises have yielded similar benefits. Recently I learned that Yale University’s most popular course ever is Psych 157, “Psychology and the Good Life.” And what do these students do for happiness homework? “The three good things” exercise. Actually, they have to write down five* good things they are grateful for—but this is Yale. They are overachievers.

I started doing this exercise myself back in 2009 when I discovered the research. I was so impressed that I included it in my book Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, because it turns out that happiness and gratitude can help you maintain positive change. I’ve continued to count my blessings ever since. For me, the benefits are legion—the gratitude attitude, more happiness, a healthier perspective on my problems, and even an increased sense of personal competence.

But would this exercise help me feel better about death?

When I say “death,” by the way, I am not referring to “dying,” a process that is surely fraught with poignancy at best and pain and suffering at worst. I am also putting to one side all religious views of what may or may not happen in the afterlife, and just assuming that I will become, well, dust. I’m also not referring to the loss of a beloved person or to anyone else’s death, especially the deaths of children or of those cut off in their prime by war, disease, or pestilence. These are tragic events, plain and simple.

By “death,” I mean the state of not being alive anymore. For me, would there be anything good about being dead? Could I possibly come up with at least three good things about that? Of course I could. Here they are:

The first good thing about death is that I will never have to speak to anyone at a call center ever again. If there are call centers in the afterlife, then I will know for sure that I’m in Hell. Recently, however, I discovered something worse than a call center: Having to go to a website and solve your problem all by yourself. Maybe Hell is self-service.

The second good thing about death is that there will no longer be a need for body maintenance. By "body maintenance," I mean doctors and dentists appointments and all the things you have to do to your face, skin, and teeth every morning and night just to stay healthy. In death, you can let everything go. (Of course, I could also argue that I'm lucky to have doctors and dentists to take care of me. You see how the gratitude attitude seeps into your bones?)

The third and best good thing: I would finally sleep through the night. In the last 15 years, I don't think I've had one night of uninterrupted sleep. Part of the aging process is that your bladder gradually shrinks to the size of a sunflower seed. I’m so grateful when I only awaken once and can get back to sleep in a reasonable amount of time. More often, I'm up two or three times a night. In death, my sleep would most definitely not be interrupted. True, it will be a long, long night. I guess that's why they call it "eternal rest."

And the other good things... so many possibilities! When I'm gone, I certainly won't miss the devastating crises of life or even its minor inconveniences, such as home repairs, computer breakdowns, and car troubles, not to mention the endless struggle of adapting to new technologies. But these are minor hassles. All in all, I love life, and, assuming I could be relatively healthy, well-off, and free of most of the ravages of old age, I could figure out ways to be happy.

While I am wishing, I think I’ll make it clear that I’d like both immortality and eternal youth. I don’t want to make the mistake of the woman in Greek mythology who asked the gods for eternal life for her lover but forgot to specify that he remain young as well. He ended up much like a cicada. Of course, that’s where we’re all going anyway.

Bottom line: Although I feel a little better about the Great Beyond, I can't claim to accept the idea of my own death just yet, even after considering some of its benefits. But what I can do is feel grateful for my lucky life and for every single moment I have left in this crazy, amazing world.

© Meg Selig, 2018. All rights reserved.

*Actually the assignment of writing down “5 good things” is probably in line with research indicating that our built-in negativity bias can so magnify one negative event that we need 5 good things to outweigh it.

Readers, this blog is meant to take a comic perspective on a daunting event that we all must face. However, I really do recommend the “Three Good Things” exercise as a way to practice gratitude and savor life. It’s changed my life. Maybe it will change yours, too. I’ve written about it here.