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To Live a Better Life, Think About Death
Why contemplating our mortality can be a powerful catalyst for change
What would you do differently if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? When you look back before you say goodbye, what will you regret if you don’t make changes now?
Maybe you would muster the courage to quit your job or mend a broken relationship. Perhaps you would travel or finally pursue your dream to be an entrepreneur. Whatever the action, it would likely bring you closer to your authentic self.
On their deathbed, most people wish they would have had the courage to live a life true to themselves instead of trying to please others, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs echoed the importance of contemplating tomorrow to live better today, saying:
“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Research shows that, paradoxically, reflecting on death can be instructive for improving yourself in the present. A study by psychologist Adam Grant found that when people are reminded of their mortality, they become more generative—that is, helpful and productive—and purposeful. Seeing aged images of ourselves can also affect how much we save for retirement and influence healthy behaviors like quitting smoking.
But why does contemplating death actually inspire us? The answer lies in leveraging the psychological power of our future selves. First we need to understand how future-thinking shapes our thinking and behavior. Then we can take advantage of research-backed exercises to envision a better life and create a path to profound personal change.
The Power of Future-Thinking
Like many people, I am guilty of sometimes living on autopilot. Many of us wear “being busy” as a badge of honor, crowding out time and space for self-reflection. As a result, we rarely question our assumptions, explore our potential, or get honest about what we really want to achieve.
This is in part because “envisioning ourselves far into the future is extremely difficult,” says Daniel Pink in his book To Sell Is Human. It’s so difficult that, neurologically speaking, we tend to view our future self as a stranger. Since we can’t imagine more for ourselves, we mistakenly think a better life isn’t possible. Our goals remain elusive.
But the brain is malleable, which means it can be retrained. And increasingly, studies show that creating a compelling vision for your future can radically transform your happiness and success.
People who consciously contemplate the future are less emotionally exhausted and more motivated. In fact, this type of thinking, called “goal-directed prospection,” leads to greater goal achievement. The act of intentionally envisioning your future has a threefold function:
- It inspires you to create detailed, realistic steps for planning to reach your goals. (NYU researchers Peter M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen call these “implementation intentions.”)
- It causes you to reorganize your life so you can devote time and inner resources to your desires, rather than wasting mental and emotional energy on unfulfilled or unaligned goals.
- It helps you overcome myopic, short-term thinking to make better long-term decisions.
How to Discover Your “Best Possible Self”
One powerful future-thinking exercise comes from the field of positive psychology. The “best possible self” is one well-studied mental imagery technique that you can use to fuel a more fulfilling vision — one where you’re living a full, happy life filled with more joy and less drudgery. Studies find that spending a few minutes thinking about your best possible self can have stunning results, boosting positive emotions like optimism, hope, and self-compassion.
Here’s how it works:
1. Pick a time frame in the future.
To make the exercise practical, I suggest narrowing in on a date six months to two years from today. Imagining your life five or 10 years from now is often too hard to wrap your brain around.
2. Picture yourself at your best.
Imagine everything has turned out as good as possible. What goals have you accomplished? What dreams have become a reality? What has happened in your career, relationships, or health?
3. See it and feel it deeply.
Describe your future life in vivid detail. When you are your best possible self, how do you feel? What are you thinking? Who are you with? Where are you? How are you spending your time? What do you look like?
Write for 10 to 20 minutes, scripting a story for your future as if you were writing a personal diary. Even if your thoughts are fragmented, it’s important to commit your reflection to paper.
4. Think about how to apply your strengths.
Studies suggest that this visualization is most effective when it’s specific, such as thinking about your career direction or a new relationship. As you contemplate your ideal future, pay attention to the personal strengths you’re utilizing. According to the VIA Institute, “Character Strengths are the positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel, and behave, and are the keys to you being your best self.”
While you can’t embody your best possible self by tomorrow, you can take one small step toward it today.
Design a Better Life
Like many millennials, I was told I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. Before the age of 10, I cycled through dreams of acting, singing, and becoming a veterinary pharmacist. By 25, I was burned out and miserable, feeling trapped in a career I thought I’d do for a lifetime.
Many people find themselves climbing the wrong ladder, according to Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. To change that, they’ve taught thousands of people to transform their future using design thinking.
- Your first plan, Life One, should expand on what would happen if you stayed on your current path.
- For Life Two, imagine how your life would be different if your current path were no longer an option. What would you do to make a living?
- In Life Three, allow yourself to dream about what you would do if money or other people’s judgements didn’t matter. What would make you truly happy?
By pondering multiple ideas at once, you stay open to possibilities and readily conjure up novel solutions.
Envisioning the future is powerful because it frees you to create a new, more empowering narrative for your life. Give it a shot, and watch yourself become a better, more fulfilled person in the process.