I once read that one way to undertake life is to act so as to minimize the regret you will feel on your death bed.
Is this a legitimate mechanism for sifting the important from the unimportant? I don’t mean the theoretically important, the universally important or any sort of externally important. I mean what really matters to you, what makes you deeply happy. Might this Death Bed Test provide a useful perspective onto what constitutes a good life?
Why should it matter what you would think on your death bed? The vast majority of your life is not spent on your death bed. What makes that perspective especially legitimate? Might it be an intuitive test for what our unmet human needs are?
Indulge me for a moment on a little stroll through a ‘what if’ scenario. I think that it could be enlightening. What if we were really made in a certain way – whether by evolution, by design or by design executed through evolution? What if our make-up was such that certain activities or states of affairs were inherently rewarding, fulfilling – made us happy, while others did not? What if some activities and states did quite the opposite?
What if the happiness-producing activities included the ones that satisfied one of the 'Four Fs' when they were called for? Eating when hungry, successfully escaping a predator and retiring to a safe location, successfully fighting off a predator or competitor for your hunting territory, mating.
What if they also included those activities that defined a purpose or meaning for us in the face of our own mortality, the ones through which we experienced agency, the ones by which we authentically presented ourselves to the world, the ones through which we found belonging?
What if our minds were more adept at pursuing the basic activities than those that met the younger, higher-order needs? What if we were lucky enough to live in an environment in which those most basic needs were routinely and reliably met?
What if the mind detected a shortfall in the higher-order needs but misattributed the longing to a non-existent shortfall in one of the basic ones? What if, despite continued pursuit and over-fulfillment of basic needs , the mind continued to sense some longing that was obviously not being met?
Would the mind go into overdrive? Would it obsessively and counterproductively adopt a competitive posture, flushing the body with hormones to prepare it for a Four F-type encounter? Would it keep reminding itself of its own inescapable dissatisfaction? Would it ‘pull up’ the drawbridge, focusing relentlessly on its apparently urgent, basic needs?
In short, would it, in the face of unmet needs of the younger, higher-order kind, still accidentally neglect those needs while counterproductively pursuing activities to meet basic needs that in truth are already met? I think you see the point I’m making.
Now, fast forward. What if the patient is on his death bed. Despite all attempts to deny it, he now faces the inescapable truth that his time on Earth is ending. He knows that no food, no money, no sexual partners, no Stuff will pass with him from this world.
What if, in this extraordinary state, the mind finally calls a halt to the churning pursuit of those ancient, animal needs? What if, in those moments of clarity, the smoke of spinning mental activity cleared, the veils of primordial obsession dissolved, he is able to see, with a simplicity that surprises him, what the unmet needs were all along? What if he sees what his unique human needs were? What if he sees with shining clarity the happy, fulfilled life he might have led?
Would this constitute a privileged perspective? Would being able to fast-forward to that perspective sooner rather than later be of value to the (hopefully) long life yet to be lived before the death bed? I think so.
So what do most people, on their death bed, say they would change? What are the things they now realise were the unmet needs? The needs that sprang from their being a human but were clouded, hidden and confused by their being an animal. Writer and pastor John Ortberg has most often heard, ‘I would have loved more deeply.’ ‘ I would have laughed more often.’ ‘I would have given more generously.’ ‘I would have lived more boldly.’ Palliative care worker, Bronnie Ware, whose patients were home for the final weeks of their lives, identifies five themes:
Really though, my point is less about what people do actually say when asked such questions than about what your own calm contemplation suggests you might say. As I’ve discussed this with a number of friends and colleagues, themes emerge around self-understanding, being true to one’s self, pursuing one’s real ambitions and nurturing and appreciating one’s most treasured relationships.
I suggest that you reflect on this hypothetical look back on life. Rather than simply doing from this negative perspective of life regrets, flip things around to pen your ideal eulogy. What is the short passage by which you would like to be remembered? What elements of your life does it draw on?
While I think it is important to work out what matters, I suggest pursuing your answers in the form of pragmatic wisdom rather than certain knowledge. I would warn against subscribing to ‘systems of thought’ that claim to deduce logical certainties and irrefutable truths. Instead, I suggest carefully considering and testing the assumptions at the foundation of your beliefs, the ultimately unprovable axioms from which we all must start.
I think that some useful rules of thumb for this reflection are to: keep an open mind, judge pragmatically, favour (among pragmatically successful alternatives) simplicity and beauty.
...[T]hrough habituation and social comparison, we find ourselves in a no-win situation in which no level of income or consumption remains satisfying for long — the hedonic treadmill. The more people seek to boost consumption, the more income they require and the harder and longer they must work, undermining those activities that are actually fulfilling and satisfying…
On our hedonic treadmill, like the Red Queen in Alice’s adventures, we seemingly have to run at full steam just to stay still. Might our real mistake be that we’re chasing the wrong things? Is there a mass misdiagnosis of our needs?
Technological and other cultural evolution have supplanted biological evolution as the prime drivers of change for humans and for Earth. The culturally-dominated modern environment is profoundly different from the evolutionary environment that shaped us, and life for most in developed western countries (despite a growing class of the left-behind) is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity of material resources. Why can’t we just relax in comfort? Might our evolutionary programming now be leading us astray?
Because our antennae sense relative rather than absolute need, unquenchable human longing follows a seemingly endless trail of desires and aversions. Constant comparison and competition drive an undercurrent of discontent – the wish for more, different, better things. The hyper-capitalist economies of English-speaking countries feed and amplify this discontent to a fever pitch while enticing the individual to invest ever more exclusively in an all-consuming work life to finance material acquisition and social status.
Work life crowds out the relationships and diverse activities that would otherwise enrich life. The individual’s overreliance on his work for so much of his sense of well-being and self-worth leaves him in a precarious position, in thrall to others who are under intense pressure to optimize his contribution as a resource rather than his well-being as a complex person.
Our human longing is telling us something, but we are misunderstanding the ache we feel. Beyond a quite basic level of material need, our satisfaction, happiness and well-being aren’t to be found in an increasing reliance on material wealth, a narrowing focus on extrinsic success and a shrinking sphere of concern limited to our most basic drives. As with all addictions, satisfying one desire brings a brief sense of bliss followed by the rapid arousal of yet more subjective ‘needs’. Desires, like cancerous cells, multiply and refuse to die.
Our true satisfaction is best served by freeing ourselves from the shackles of our multiplying desires. Our lives become richer when we place proper value on our own time and energy, when we nurture the most durable and important external ‘assets’ we have, our relationships with others.
All the harder, I know, when our ‘communication’ technologies (like where you are reading this) are in truth finely-tuned mechanisms for stoking exactly the covetousness that keeps the hedonic treadmill turning.
I read an unfortunate story in the news some years ago. An elderly man, suffering from dementia and obviously not fit to be behind the wheel of a car, accidentally turned into Third Street Promenade, a pedestrianised street in Santa Monica, California. Realising that something was wrong, he pressed down his foot to brake, but his foot was on the accelerator. The car sped forward. The man could tell something was wrong, as people leapt out of his way or bounced off his bumper. He just didn’t realize he needed to shift his foot to stomp on a different pedal. He pressed harder and harder on the accelerator in his efforts to stop, and the car sped down the crowded plaza, killing a number of people before crashing to a stop.
The man didn’t understand what was going on. First of all, these people shouldn’t be in the middle of a road. He was in a car, and cars travel where people are not. He found himself in an environment that didn’t fit with his (deteriorating) understanding of driving. Second, he failed in his corrective actions. He knew he should slow down. He knew that he needed to press down his foot to brake. But his automatic muscle memory that should have shifted his foot to the brake pedal from the accelerator wasn’t functioning properly. From his perspective, he was braking, but inexplicably, the car was rocketing forward. All he could do in his confused state was continue pushing his foot down, because that was supposed to work.
While this is not a perfect analogy for our mind in the modern environment, I think that there may be some illuminating parallels. We’re not seeing the world clearly. Our evolutionary and historically-programmed short-cuts are unreliable in a much-changed world. We’re pushing on the wrong pedals in our efforts to improve our situations.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.