Thinking About Death to Deter Depression

I’m obsessed with death. By that I mean that I think about my own death everyday, which I think qualifies it as an obsession.  My thoughts about death aren’t macabre — I’m not thinking about which Final Destination-style death might befall me. Rather, I think about the fact that I am a mortal and my life is finite. I’ve created a visual to help me put this finite life-time in perspective, and it serves as a great reminder that every day counts.

Some people find reminders of their death depressing, but thinking about death can actually make you happier. I first heard about this idea in Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken. Jane McGonigal designs and researches games, and in her 2011 bestseller, she explores the ways in which game mechanics positively influence human psychology. McGonigal proposes that we apply the structures and mechanics of games as solutions to problems in reality.

One particular problem McGonigal discusses is depression. The World Health Organization calls depression “the leading cause of disability worldwide.” Being unhappy is a big issue, and thinking about death is one simple, although non-obvious, solution. 

The idea is not new. Some of humanity's best philosophers have espoused the idea that keeping death at the center of our attention allows us to live a more intentional and fulfilling life.  In his must-read essay, On the Shortness of Life, stoic Seneca condemned those who lost sight of the finite nature of their life:

"You live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last."

The less-chastising Buddha said, "Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme.  Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

As McGonigal discusses in her book, psychological research agrees with the ancients: “positive psychologists have found that grappling with the reality of death forces a kind of mental shift that helps us savor the present and focus our attention in the intrinsic goals that matter most to us.” The effect is extra pronounced on those with near-death experiences, but we’re all dying, and the principle applies to those of us without an enumerated death sentence. McGonigal proposes thinking about our mortality as healthy and encouraging.

It’s an interesting concept with all its juxtapositions. People are notoriously bad about discussing their own depression, and people avoid thinking about death, but chronic depression can lead to suicide. Even for those who aren’t on the verge of ending their own life, depression can be debilitating. Constantly remembering that you’re going to die may sound grim, but perhaps that reminder can be empowering.

Thinking of death on a daily basis has been incredibly powerful for me. Like everyone else, I have bad days. Days when I forget my wallet and spill coffee on my shirt and stub my toe. Or days when I find my mom annoying because she keeps calling in the middle of the work day, although I’ve asked her to text me if it’s before 6pm. But even when a day sucks, I remember that all of us have a finite number of them and I try to salvage something out of the day and give it some value. Maybe I’ll spend a few minutes exercising and taking care of my body or will craft an extra nice text message for my mom. It becomes incredibly easy to take the bad days and give them some importance. As Seneca said in his essay, “Life, if you know how to use it, is long."

More on Reality is Broken


"Gamification" was the hype-word at every product-design meeting for several years, and unfortunately, the concept of gamification became associated with badges in social-networking apps. Back when Reality is Broken was published, however, Jane McGonigal had more thoughtful ideas for taking elements from games and applying them to solve important problems. Check out her TED talk for a quick look into to some of the ideas from her book.

Picture of Abney Cemetery by Ioan Sameli, made available under the Creative Commons license.