Forget your New Year’s resolutions for a moment (or maybe you already have!) and focus on your last year’s resolutions, instead. No, those aren’t the promises you made to yourself when the ball dropped a year ago. It’s how you’d go about life if you only had one year left to live. That might sound maudlin and maybe even counterintuitive; why think about death when we should be concentrating on life? But studies have shown that being mindful about death — pondering it, considering our limited time on this earth — can actually lead to greater happiness.
Just look at the people of Bhutan, for example. The predominantly Buddhist country in South Asia is known for prioritizing happiness among its denizens (Bhutan is also known as the happiest country in Asia, and was named the eighth happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report). As part of their philosophy, the Bhutanese deliberately think about death daily (five times a day is the recommended amount!). So, how does a seeming preoccupation with death go hand-in-hand with this world-renowned state of happiness?
Well, let’s get back to your Last Year’s resolutions. If you’re mindful about death and allow yourself to think about it, and envision living the next year as though it were your last, it may bring your priorities into sharp relief. What are the things — and who are the people — that are important to you? By focusing on the important aspects of your life (as opposed to the things that don’t really matter), you are maximizing your own happiness. As the Dalai Lama said, “Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime.”
Accepting that our time on earth is finite is also a great kick in the pants for procrastinators. We all die; that’s a fact. But being truly cognizant of that fact is a way to push yourself to achieve. Our goals shouldn’t be put off: while tomorrow is indeed another day, our supply of tomorrows aren’t endless.
So what about those things that don’t matter? Remembering that we have limited time — and that’s an inevitability for all of us — has a way of highlighting what’s significant, and what’s not. Sweating over the perfect Instagram shot of that pastry you’re about to devour, and how many likes you’ll get in return? Not really important. Taking a moment to enjoy that bite of food at that particular moment, breathing in the scent of coffee at your favorite cafe, enjoying the company of a friend or some peaceful solitude… knowing that our time here is limited helps you savor the moment and keep the small stuff in perspective.
Another benefit of being mindful about death? Helping to ease our fear about this inevitability. While pushing the thought aside may feel like at least a temporary solution to feeling anxious about our mortality, the truth is that acknowledgement and acceptance are ways to cope with that anxiety. There are different ways you can choose to think about death; there are “death meditations” (techniques that allow you to confront the idea of death and truly accept it), but simply just allowing yourself to think about it is one way to start. You’ll be happy you did.
Also read: The art of finding closure on your own