3 Ways To Make 'Memento Mori' Your Mantra

Death doesn't have to be something to fear. Instead, it can be something motivating.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 26, 2024

"Memento Mori," a Latin phrase that translates to "remember you must die," is a popular artistic and symbolic trope that captures the essential meaning death introduces to life. Modern society has a million things vying for our limited attention—and this philosophy dictates that nothing is more powerful than the thought of our own mortality in jolting us into the present moment.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that one of the most effective ways to put life in perspective is to realize that our lifetime comes with an expiry date. Researchers Emily Mroz, Susan Bluck and Kiana Cogdill-Richardson refer to mortality as "a significant, if not the single most paramount motivator for how we organize our lives."

Being aware or reminded of our mortality doesn't have to feel morbid. Our priorities become crystal clear when we know that our time is limited as the clock continues to tick. Here are three ways to use the death alarm to live a meaningful life.

1. Be Grateful For Another Day Alive

Develop a habit of expressing gratitude for being alive when you wake up to a new day instead of immediately dwelling on your problems and to-do lists. This shift in perspective will help you focus on being grateful for having the ability to solve your problems rather than fixating on them.

Death perception is intricately linked to the notion of a grateful life. A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that awareness of mortality can enhance gratitude, as individuals who reflect on death may develop a greater appreciation for life as a finite resource.

Individuals who have encountered near-death experiences (NDEs) or terminal illnesses often develop a heightened perception of death. They embrace life with gratitude, see the bigger picture, overlook trivial matters and exude a more positive and resilient outlook on life than the average person.

Fortunately, it's not necessary to be in a life-threatening situation to gain perspective and steer towards the right path. Engaging in regular self-reflection is equally powerful in helping us remember what truly matters to us.

2. Pick Your Battles Wisely

Acknowledging our finite time compels us to reassess our priorities. This enables us to concentrate on making meaningful contributions to the areas of life that hold the most significance for us. It's not about getting more things done but the "right" things done.

For instance, while many of us may possess multidisciplinary skills and excel in various areas, being recognized as an expert typically pertains to one or two specific domains. This is because although reaching a satisfactory level of proficiency in multiple fields is achievable, mastering a subject often requires a lifetime of dedication. Understanding that we have limited time makes it easier to prioritize what we love—over what is expected of us—early in our careers and leads to a lifelong dedication to mastering our craft.

To prioritize your life choices, make time each weekend and ask yourself:

  • Do I truly feel present and invested when I'm living my day-today life?
  • If I had all the time in the world, would I do the same things I'm doing right now?
  • When people ask me about what I'm doing, am I excited to give them an answer?

If the answer isn't a resounding yes, then it most likely is a no—don't overthink it. Tech stalwart and innovator Steve Jobs practiced a daily self-reflection exercise that you could use to pick your battles wisely at the top of your day:

Each morning, after waking up, Jobs would ask himself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?" If the answer was "no" for multiple days, he knew it was time to change direction.

3. Redefine Your Life's Narrative With Virtue

The 2022 study also found that individuals who become conscious of their mortality are more driven to lead virtuous and meaningful lives. Most people describe the good life as virtuous in adulthood.

When asked, "If you only live once, how do you want others to remember you after you're gone?," the majority of participants responded that they'd like to be remembered as courageous, wise or kind—in essence, not for what they achieved, but what they contributed.

You can pose the same question to yourself, and the roadmap to shaping your life story may emerge naturally. You can then determine the steps that can help you become the person you want to be remembered as.

A life well-lived is less about acquisition and accumulation, and more about authenticity and alignment. When one lives in alignment with their values, innermost beliefs and emotions, they live burden-free. In this way, envisioning your death can help you live the life of your dreams.

Do you feel like you think about death more than the average person? Take the Morbid Curiosity Scale to learn more.

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