Death and Happiness

My grandfather passed away recently. It has been a tough few years for my family, but we have felt a lot of love and support from each other as well as from our community and network of friends.

My cousin gave an excellent eulogy at the funeral. One thing that he noted is that Papa has been insisting that every encounter with him could be the last for years. For at least the last decade, he has insisted that he is almost out of time.

I specifically remember the family telling him that he had to hold on long enough to see one of his grandchildren get married. He did. And then he saw four others. He even held on for the births of eight great grandchildren. He made it a lot longer than he told everybody that he would.

My grandfather talked about dying more than most. Some people may find this kind of talk morbid and unsettling. A lot of folks find talk of death unsavory. But I think Papa had the right approach. He had, in fact, uncovered an ancient secret to happiness.

Death in Ancient Rome

The Romans thought about death a lot.

After great military victories, Roman generals would be granted a “triumph.” The triumph was essentially an epic parade. The whole city would come out to see the general being carried through the city with the victorious army and the spoils of war on full display. It was a full day celebration of the general. He was on top of the world.

But on the float with the general would be a slave whose only job was to periodically remind the general that he was a mortal and that he would die one day.

The cheering and accolades and adoring fans feel great, but don’t let your head get too big, because you’re going to die just like everyone else.

Philosophers Thinking About Death

While all of Rome thought about death, the Roman Stoics were specifically interested in thinking about death in order to live a better life.

Epictetus said to “keep the prospect of death, exile, and all such apparent tragedies before you every day, especially death….” All of the Stoic philosophers talk about the importance of fighting our natural fear of death and keeping it at the top of our mind.

Their view is that death itself is neither good nor bad. It is just a fact. It is a thing that happens to everybody. Death is not negative. Fear of death is negative.

On top of that, death gives meaning to life. The fact that our time is limited provides greater weight to what we choose to do with our days.

A Better Life

Knowledge of death allows us to appreciate life. If we ignore death, then we act as if life is everlasting. We take the little things for granted. We don’t appreciate the everyday interactions with others.

Acknowledging that life could end at any moment instills a sense of gratitude. If you recognize that this is the last sunset you may ever see, you appreciate its beauty. If you remind yourself that any interaction with someone could be your last, you savor the conversation and are more present and engaged.

As we know, gratitude increases happiness. Being present and engaged improves our relationships, and deeper relationships are another key to happiness.

If we want to live a happier life, maybe it is time to start thinking more about death. It’s not necessarily an intuitive idea, but it is a lesson that we could all learn.

Thanks, Papa.

23 thoughts on “Death and Happiness”

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about your Grandfather. Sounds like he definitely knew the key to happiness and soaking up every moment while he could.

    I knew that the Roman generals had huge parades but had no idea that there was a slave to remind them of their mortality. Definitely incredible smart and insightful. Definitely way ahead of their time 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…The Upside of MovingMy Profile

  2. I’m so sorry to hear about your grandfather. My grandparents are 85, and they mention death often, saying one day they won’t be able to see their children and grandchildren anymore. We all brush it aside or change the subject, but everyone feels sad just hearing it.

  3. I have a rather unusual way to think about death from time to time. I sometimes joke with my wife, if I ever become ill or something happens to me that I can’t care for myself independently, I would like the “plug” to be pulled so that I am not a burden to anyone trying to take care of me.

    My view is if my life is not being lived meaningfully, I don’t want to continue to live.
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  4. I’m so sorry about your Papa. It sounds like he made his mark on the world and his family in a positive way. 🙂 Sometimes it takes going through a bad time to appreciate everything great in this world. I think that, by nature, humans take things for granted. Once those things are taken away, we have a sense of appreciation.
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  5. I’m sorry for your loss. Your grandfather is a great reminder to appreciate each moment and person in your life.

    Have you read the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder? Your post and a few others I’ve read recently have reminded me I need to read it again. It was also made into a movie (1940) and a TV version (2003) neither of which I’ve seen.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…Let the Trash Talking BeginMy Profile

  6. Matt, so sorry to hear of your grandfather’s passing.

    I’m just getting into reading more on the Stoics. Thanks for sharing this story and great reminders to embrace the moments now, while we can. Here’s to your Papa!

  7. Very sorry to hear about your loss. A very interesting perspective by the Romans on death. I saw an interview between Larry King and Neil DeGrasse who had a similar perspective. Larry King said that he wanted to live forever, but Neil DeGrasse said that death was part of the natural life cycle. And he said that knowing that death was inevitable gives you focus. Of course, he was more eloquent and I’m just paraphrasing.

    1. Thank you. The role of death in focusing life is a very interesting idea to consider at this point in time. There has been a lot of talk lately about how machine learning could advance to such an extent that we could conquer natural death in our lifetimes. It is really interesting to think about what this would mean for how we live our lives.
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

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