Death Anxiety and Finding Happiness in Life
Some believe that meaning and death are two sides of the same coin; both are the underlying issues of human life. Let’s take a moment and ask ourselves: How should we live out our finite lives to the fullest, and how can we face death with the utmost dignity and pride instead of despair? Why are we here?
When people believe that their lives are meaningful, it is because three conditions have been met: significance, purpose, and coherence. Significance pertains to how you feel that your existence is appreciated by others, and more importantly about a sense of your life’s intrinsic value and having a life that is worth living. Purpose means a sense of core goals, aims, and directions in life. Coherence refers to the sense of clarity and that one’s life makes sense; feelings of coherence is essentially feeling like how everything is connected, and this depends on predictability and reliability of patterns in life. Studies have shown that feelings of coherence are associated with greater feelings of there being a meaning to life.
Personally, I have experienced great losses in life – my grandparents passed away in 2014 and 2016, both were due to complications brought about by old age, and two friends also passed on almost consecutively in 2020, one due to a freak accident and the other due to heart complications. It got me thinking about how fragile life is and that being afraid of death is an extremely normal and underrated topic; the awareness of death is truly the downside of human intelligence and yet not many people are talking about it with one another partly because we are all consumed with our daily activities or that we distract ourselves with activities because we will just do about anything to stay alive. Life will inevitably come to a halt for every living being but, in this reality, only us humans are the ones who are able to grasp its existential meaning.
In Greek mythology, Eros is the god of love whereas Thanatos is the god of death. A famous Austrian neurologist by the name of Sigmund Freud, who is extremely well-known for his founding of psychoanalysis, was inspired by the story of Eros and Thanatos. It led him to create a psychological theory that a person’s instincts fall into one of the two categories: the Eros category or the Thanatos category. Thus, the fear of death is understandably known as thanatophobia. For some of us, contemplating death can cause anxiety and fear, thus thanatophobia is recognised as a mental health disorder.
As mentioned previously, many of us try to avoid discussing about death, let alone think about it. We try to tell ourselves that we will face it when it comes, however, we do not realise that this has an adverse effect on our mental and physical health. Multiple studies and research have shown that death is in fact a major underlying feature across a wide range of anxiety-related disorders. For example, separation anxiety disorder among children often involves excessive fear of losing people who are important to them, like their parents, through accidents or death, whereas compulsive handwashers (obsessive compulsive disorder) often fear contracting chronic and life-threatening diseases, and the list of anxiety disorders just goes on. Being afraid of death is perfectly normal, fearing the unknown and not being able to have a plan for the unknown is a very real concern. Our instincts for self-preservation will shape our behaviour whenever our lives are in danger. When being threatened by an external force like a wild beast or an attacker, we will either fight or flee like our lives depend on it. However, fearing about death per se should not be hindering our lives. And for those of us who are not able to find the right coping methods, thanatophobia will surely bring about all the unnecessary mental pain and stress.
So then what is the history of death and why does it have such a great deal of power over our lives? Perhaps the answer lies in the question itself: the fear of the word is what it gives it that power. In certain religions such as Catholicism, it is believed that knowing the names of demons is a powerful method to strip away the power of the demons. What if we utilise the same approach when facing death? Instead of saying “passed away” or “passed on”, why don’t we embrace death and celebrate the life lived by the individual? How, then, do we find that happiness in our lives and in turn, hopefully have a positive relationship with death?
The biggest problem with trying to find happiness in the face of tragedies is that it is a never-ending process, and that you cannot actively look for an explanation for the tragedy that has occurred. Therefore, happiness cannot be found in logic or reason. One must try not to spend their time on looking for the answers or reasons as to why tragedies occur and focus solely on rebuilding on things that actually matter, things that are within your control. According to a Harvard researcher, the secret to happiness lies in all the meaningful relationships that we develop throughout our lives. It is never too late to try and look for happiness, and in order to do so, you could firstly try to focus your attention on creating and developing new relationships while fostering existing ones. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. This can even be observed in as early as adolescents where close friendships, also known as chumships, have actually managed to help build up psychological resiliency among them and such strong resiliency carries over into adulthood. A 75-year-long study called The Grant Study, part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has reported that close relationships protect people from the downs in life, and help to delay mental and physical decline, and are even better indicators of long and happy lives as compared to genes, IQ and social status. It was also seen that people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at the age of 50 years old were in fact the healthiest at age 80. In short, those who have sustaining warm relationships got to live longer and happier, and that loneliness has a powerful negative impact as smoking or alcoholism. It kills.
A final word: tragic circumstances can put us through profound grief, constantly reminding us of the fragility of life. However, we can also try to seek comfort in knowing that life is fragile, and death is an inevitable destination which nobody has control over. So, the lessons here is to keep death by your side like how the old adage goes for keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. This way, we will always know that there is a true danger of missing out on so much in life if we don’t spend our time appreciating and being grateful for even the most ordinary of days. And because of this, we don’t really notice each passing moment and eventually take others for granted. But if we live with mortality as a daily experience, then we will live a truly happy and healthy life till the end; we become more proficient at the unique art of living, making the most of what we have and what we can actually control. Therefore, it is very important to know that when facing death, we must also change our point of view and extend our awareness around the gift of life itself.