How do we make the most of our time? The power of confronting death

Our species’ unique awareness of our own mortality can create a nagging sense that we are wasting our time – but leaning into the fact that our time is finite can transform the way we approach life

Life 15 June 2022

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REGARDLESS OF WHETHER it is counted by watching the sun pass across the sky or by an atomic clock, time is something we tend to want to extract the most value from before we die. That might be because of our unique awareness that we will inevitably die, which gives us a nagging sense that we are wasting what little time we have.

Subconscious fears about death drive much of human thought and behaviour, according to psychology’s terror management theory. “The idea is that we would be overwhelmed with existential terror if we didn’t have some way to manage it,” says Sheldon Solomon, a psychologist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. And we manage it, the idea goes, by doing things that give us a sense of meaning and value, from believing in the afterlife to creating art.

For Solomon, this leads to a startling conclusion: that we are all just “anxious meat puppets tranquillised by culturally constructed trivialities”. But while Solomon and his colleagues have shown that subtle reminders of death make people more likely to cling to their own world view and discriminate against outsiders, there is also a bright side to this awareness of the inevitability of death.

For starters, when a commodity is perceived as scarce, it becomes more valuable – and there is no reason to think time is any different. More specifically, research demonstrates that when people consciously reflect on death, they can boost their sense of self-worth, become more socially altruistic and more open to novel experiences.

New experiences, in turn, could help us savour our time, according to Marc Wittmann

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