Confronting Our Mortality May Actually Make Us Happier
“You have cancer.” When I heard the doctor tell me that I had multiple myeloma at the age of 43, I had a flood of emotions: sorrow, surprise, numbness, denial and panic. I had no idea that eventually, one of those emotions might include enhanced joy. Of course we all know that theoretically life will eventually come to an end for all of us, but a cancer diagnosis brings that "someday" to an immediate and possible personal reality. It is no longer that people die, but that I could die within a few months or years. My time was suddenly limited and intensely more precious. A recent New York Times article by Arthur Brooks suggests that facing our mortality (which myeloma patients do every day) may actually bring greater joy into our lives, no matter the length. Contemplating our death forces us to take stock of our lives and reprioritize.
Paradoxically, this meditation on death is intended as a key to better living. It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and existential goals. In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”
In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment. In a 2004 article in the journal Science, a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction. Not so. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem. The American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.” The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.
For me, the questions I started asking myself became deeper: Have I chosen my priorities well? Have I spent the time where it was best spent? Did I build the relationships I needed to create and nurture? Did I serve God? Was I accomplishing my life’s purpose? Was I doing things that were bringing me true joy? Getting myeloma also made me re-asses not only how I spent my time, but what I found to be most important. I've heard it said that there are two ways of being: task-oriented and people-oriented. There is no question that I am insufferably task-oriented. But when I take stock, all that really matters to me are my relationships with God, with my family, and with the people I am meant to know, love and serve in this life. Tasks are needful and good, but relationships are clearly the “better part.” The forced opportunity has made me evaluate, prioritize and change. Little inconveniences no longer irritate me. My patience has grown and so has my gratitude. I have a greater appreciation for the small things in life - swimming in a pretty pool, eating Sunday dinner with my family, hiking the beautiful mountains, taking my kids to the movies and noticing the days when I feel particularly good. I'm all for LIVING, so we will keep pushing towards a cure for this insidious disease (MCRI), but in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the time I have with my new wisdom. It's one thing I can truly be happy about.