How Thinking About Death Can Help You Figure Out What To Do With Life

Psychologists Susan Bluck, Emily Mroz, and Kiana Cogdill-Richardson discuss what death can teach us about life.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 12, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that one's best shot at living a good and virtuous life is embracing their own mortality.

I recently spoke to Psychologist Emily Mroz of Yale University and Psychologist Kiana Cogdill-Richardson of the University of Florida to understand how to incorporate thinking about our mortality into our own lives. Here is a summary of our conversation.

The idea of mortality doesn't always inspire joy or excitement. What inspired you to explore the idea of a 'good life' within the context of finitude?

Our mortality is a significant, if not the single most paramount motivator for how we organize our lives. Yet, we don't think about it consciously moment to moment. I don't usually think about my own death when I'm walking into the office, shopping for house plants, or making dinner.

But because we humans are both cursed and blessed with consciousness it's always there in our peripheral.

Like Hasbro's Game of Life, the knowledge that we're moving toward the end of the board with every move necessitates a truer appreciation and intention in our choices. It's just one facet of the many things that come into play in both our major and mundane life choices, but our team thinks it's the most compelling to research because it's a topic so readily avoided.

Adults understand that life is finite and we believe that this awareness is what motivates seeking out a good life. Because, if not for death, we'd have no motivation to curate our best version of a good life in the present.

And, with seeking out a eudaimonic good life, there's the additional element of legacy-leaving: not just asking, "what job do I want?" but the perhaps more complicated question of, "how do I want to be remembered?"

This is nothing new. In fact, it's a universal human concern. Consider The Somonyng of Everyman, a play printed in the 16th century, which sees a man attempt to account for his time on earth with all he gained before realizing that he will be solely valued for his good deeds.

We believe most people want to be remembered as virtuous — meaning kind, or courageous, or wise, etc. — and that goal motivates the people to seek out eudaimonia in crafting their good life.

Could you walk us through the idea of narrative identity and how it relates to the eudaemonic good life?

Our research team feels that there's a relationship between how we manage death and reach for a eudaimonic good life, which is all maintained through our narrative identities.

Narrative identity is a person's internalized life story; their unified sense of what their life has looked like so far, and what it might be in the future.

To put it a different way, narrative psychologists believe that the best way to get to know a person isn't by asking questions with one word answers ("what's your favorite color?" "where were you born?") but by asking questions that prompt sharing of autobiographical memories ("can you tell me about the last time you cried?") or imagined futures ("can you describe what your future home might look and feel like?").

When sharing these life stories, we strive to convey our innermost self, or who we really want to be, to the listener. Often, this means sharing stories that portray highly desirable (read: virtuous) self qualities.

Like we mentioned, most people are aware at some level that their life is finite; in other words, we know that our life stories will end one day. Some of the research we do examines or tests this idea by considering how our life stories develop in the context of mortality.

We've done research on individuals diagnosed with terminal cancer and individuals' near-death experiences, for example, and we're currently working on a paper about what adults across the lifespan want to do most with their lives before they die.

When the Journal of Research in Personality put out a call for a special issue on the good life from a narrative identity perspective, we realized this paper was a perfect fit, and on a topic (mortality) that other contributors probably wouldn't cover.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

This research team often conducts studies with life stories at the foundation.

We want to learn more about what contextual factors shape people's life stories, and how those life stories impact self-understanding, decision-making, and well-being. So for this study, like many others, the central feature was prompting participants to share personal memories.

In this case, we asked them to tell self-defining memories; that is, one memory they would share to represent their innermost self. This was an experimental study. Some participants shared these memories in a neutral condition, where they were instructed to share a memory to describe who they are in the present. Other participants were instructed to share a memory exemplifying how they want to be remembered after death.

All participants then shared why they chose the memory they chose — in other words, what they thought the memory represents about them, using three short phrases.Our research team then used content-analysis to analyze these phrases paired with the full self-defining memory.

We'd say our main, hypothesis-supporting finding is most important: across the adult lifespan, people tend to share self-defining memories that portray them as virtuous more often when they are told to share a memory they want to be remembered by. And, they tend to share virtuous self-defining memories less often when told to just share a memory that describes them in the present.

Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who might have adopted a more 'YOLO' or hedonistic approach to life because of the same consideration: finitude and mortality?

Everyone's relationship with death is deep, personal, and complex.

YOLO (You Only Live Once) is a mantra that has cropped up in the past decade and is usually used as a rationale for risky, self-indulgent, or silly activities. These definitely fall under the umbrella of a more 'hedonistic' good life.

We believe that, when people adopt 'YOLO' or other mindsets, it's because they want to justify their behavior as a choice to 'live life to the fullest' while they can.

We recognize that some people adopt this mindset more as a way of life: for example, the handful of athletes like Marc-André Leclerc and Alex Honnold who choose to climb routes thousands of feet high with no ropes or other safety gear, knowing that a fall would be fatal.

For folks like this, the idea of legacy-leaving after death is quite different than for the average person: they are truly aiming to leave a legacy not based on virtue, but based on extreme accomplishment, pushing the human experience to its maximum capacity.

For those handful of people, we wouldn't want to (or be able to) offer advice or wisdom to change their way of life. But for the vast majority, those who tap into the YOLO mindset occasionally, we believe that this hedonistic mantra exists on the surface of a deeper relationship with death, one in which eudaimonic or virtuous intentions also exist.

In the over 200 self-defining memories participants shared for this study, no one shared a memory of a needlessly risky or self-indulgent activity; participants were more concerned with portraying other important self-characteristics.

So, the advice we might offer to anyone who occasionally adopts a YOLO mentality is to make sure that you balance that lifestyle with other features (pursuit of long-term goals, care for others, appreciation, and gratitude). If you only live once, what do you want that life to look like in the eyes of others who remember you after you're gone?

What are some practical takeaways for our readers from your research? Maybe someone looking to incorporate a more virtuous approach to life into their perspective?

One of the results that was perhaps more surprising is that young, middle-aged, and older adults all follow the same self-defining memory sharing pattern, where memories more often involve virtue if they are being told in a memorialization condition than the neutral condition.

We didn't get a chance to write too much about this, but one takeaway we'd offer, especially to younger adults, is to recognize that older adults are often still striving to become the best versions of themselves before death.

Unfortunately, recent historical events like the Covid-19 pandemic and contentious decisions from the supreme court have promoted ageism across the US.

Younger people have circulated memes, for example, that imply that older people have nothing left to live for, no more ability to grow or change, and perhaps are even inherently vulnerable to cognitive impairment that impedes their decision-making.

In fact, ageism seems to be one of the last frontiers where blatant stereotyping is acceptable in most social circles across the US and beyond.

We hope this article encourages readers to be self-reflective, to consider how they want to incorporate virtue into their own lives going forward.

Beyond that, we hope this article contributes in its own small way to breaking down social barriers between age groups, to help leaders recognize that core life motivations (i.e., living a good life before death) are shared among people across the lifespan.

How do you hope your research contributes to intervention efforts?

This research was originally inspired by death education activities. Both Susan Bluck and Brian Carpenter, article authors, have been teaching death and dying classes for years and strive to incorporate creative activities into their classes.

We can see from this article's results that encouraging learners of all ages to consider how they want to be remembered after death motivates a focus on eudaimonic or virtuous self-qualities.

For us, this suggests that these types of death education activities might have really important consequences both in and outside of the classroom. Other death-focused, community-based activities, like 'Before I Die' walls and 'Death over Dinner' events, have inspired people to consider what their life has and can look like before they die.

We think this work can also inspire successful community-based interventions. More broadly, our goal is to get death conversations started.

One day you and I, and all reading this will die — it is inevitable and inescapable. We share that with humans across time, just as we share the want to be remembered and to remember those we love virtuously.

A simple walk through a graveyard reveals the human predilection toward virtuousness. It is natural to be overcome with fear and doubt when we think about death, but the more conversations we foster, the more likely we will live full and rich lives according to the subjective values that make our lives worth living.