“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
-Achilles (from the movie Troy)
Could thinking about the end of a pleasurable event, or even death paradoxically increase happiness? Many people with terminal disease have surprisingly reported greater happiness and a renewed appreciation of life. Maybe Achilles was right in that mortality prompts you to enjoy life.
One study recruited college students from the University of Virginia who reported enjoying their college experience. A third of participants read an excerpt about how little time they had left in school, a third read an excerpt about how much time they had left in school and a third group didn’t read an excerpt. Participants were then asked to write about their college experience for 10 minutes, keeping in mind what they had read. Finally participants were surveyed later that day and 4 additional times over the following 2 weeks on their mood and the number of campus activities they had participated in. The participants who were reminded that they were graduating soon participated in more activities and were significantly happier (and their happiness increased over the 2 weeks).
While the study only looked at the impending end of college, it’s likely that the same results would hold for more significant events, like death. The researchers described the process as follows:
A person’s first experience watching the sun setting over the ocean, for example, might demand attention and accommodation, and he or she might be compelled to stop and appreciate its beauty. However, similar sunsets will cease to draw the person in over time, and it will require more effort to acknowledge and appreciate them. In other words, it is easy to grow accustomed to the pleasant, enduring things around us, and effortful strategies are often required to keep these things novel and a source of enjoyment… Being struck with the realization that a meaningful or pleasurable activity is soon ending brings its positive qualities to the forefront of one’s attention along with a sense of motivation to make the most of it.
Even though we’re all mortal and all good things will come to an end, we somehow forget this fact (maybe intentionally) unless it’s staring us in the face. However, this research supports the idea that you should constantly remind yourself that positive experiences will come to an end. This will prevent you from taking life for granted and will make you significantly happier in the process.
Kurtz, Jaime L. “Looking to the Future to Appreciate the Present The Benefits of Perceived Temporal Scarcity.” Psychological Science 19.12 (2008): 1238-1241.