Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important… – Steve Jobs, in a commencement speech at Stanford University
There are few things scarier than the thought of death, but as Ben Franklin noted, there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.
In some cultures, death is viewed as the natural end of the life cycle. People think of it as a way to create change that “clears out the old to make way for the new,” as Jobs said in his speech. In the United States, however, death is often a taboo subject—people avoid discussing it and are really scared of the dying process.
Instead of death causing people to be scared, how can it be used as a motivation to live every day to the fullest?
In one study, researchers had participants do three different tasks. First, word pairs were shown to two groups of people. The word pairs were randomly generated for both groups (e.g., CALCULATOR | LETTUCE), but the second group was “primed” with subliminal prompts that showed the words PAIN or DEATH for 33 milliseconds (literally, a split second) between each pair of words. In a second task, participants wrote how they felt about either dental pain or death.
Participants were then given a “Humor Generation Task” where they received four uncaptioned cartoons from The New Yorker and were asked to “write down the funniest caption that they could think of.” Participants as well as people who were not involved in the study (outside raters) then rated how funny each caption was.
What did they find? The outside raters thought that the captions from people who saw the word DEATH were funnier than the captions from people who saw the word PAIN. For the self-ratings, those who worked on the death writing task thought their captions were funnier than those who were exposed to messages about dental pain. In other words, people were more entertaining after they were primed to think about death.
As in our posts every week, I’m telling you about a strange research study that probably leaves you asking, how can people apply this research finding to real life?
First, people should realize that thinking about death doesn’t need to be a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be depressing. Considered in the right light, thinking about death can make you laugh and love more each day, and treat every day as if it were your last.
I call this ability to use death as inspiration “Tuesdays with Tito.” Why? Tito, aka Matt Cutler, was my neighbor in college. Tito and I met at the beginning of our sophmore year in college and quickly clicked and spent a lot of time together that year. Although Tito loved to go to parties and experiment like many of our 19-year-old friends, unlike most students, he wasn’t doing it to find himself. Instead, he was consciously doing it to live life to the fullest, every day. And that’s why Tito wasn’t just focused on partying, studying, and other selfish things; he was also a genuinely good person who would go out of his way to help others.
On Tuesday nights, after we went to UCLA’s “$1 pint night” (I’m dating myself back to when it was only $1 to get a pint of beer! —and the event was shut down for serving alcohol to minors), Tito and I would often sneak into a neighborhood or hotel hot tub and talk about things that would have been scary or depressing to many people, like bad things that had happened to us and people we loved in our life. We talked about relatives who died at a young age, friends who were diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, and about the uncertainty of our own lives and how we could die at any moment. But these were far from depressing conversations. The point of our talks was to remember and appreciate how lucky we were in life because it could all change or end at any moment. We were reminding ourselves to do what excites us and not worry about what others think of us because life is short. Relax. And smile.
I continue to think about those days with Tito, and this post reminds me that I need to check on him and see how he’s doing. I hope 15 years later that he’s still sneaking into hotel hot tubs, even if he’s got enough cash at this point to own one himself.
Beyond showing that death affects us in both conscious and unconscious ways, the takeaway of this week’s study is simple: a sense of humor is invaluable. Being able to laugh helps alleviate stress and encourages creative thinking, and it’s one of the most accessible ways to cope with problems at work, school, or home. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”