Momento Mori | How Thinking About Death Can Help You Live a Better Life

Life is Precious

Momento Mori, which means contemplating your own mortality, was commonly practiced by the Stoics centuries ago to remind them of how precious life was. It can be easy to lose sight of this, when we get lost in our thoughts and are dealing with the hassles and inconveniences of daily life, or when we are going through a hard time in our lives.

Bad days and good days are all precious. Being in our bodies, enjoying the use of any of our five senses – sight, touch, sound, scent, and taste – is precious. The emotions we feel are precious. And while we can’t walk around all the time thinking about what a miracle it is to be alive (unless we live in a contemplative community of some sort), we can still pause for a moment to really let the joy of it really sink in.

Momento Mori

I recently read a wonderful blog post by Tim Urban of Wait but Why, and he actually quantified his life into a “weeks left of life” chart. I created my own chart here and I’m sharing it below.

Momento Mori

The red squares show the weeks I’ve been alive, and the white squares show the weeks I have left to live, if I live to age 90. Now before you stop reading, give me a chance to explain why this is NOT morbid and how Momento Mori can actually help you live a better life.

Stop Sweating the Small Stuff

Momento Mori helps me not sweat the small stuff so much. I don’t have to cling to the multiple things that don’t go as I want them to during, like the person who cut me off on the road, the rude customer service rep on the phone, the challenges I’m having dealing with bureaucracies, a disagreement with a friend, and so on.  These are all frustrating and difficult in the moment, but it is so much easier to let them go. I used to pile on these initial frustrations with additional anger and outrage, so it occupied way more of my mental bandwidth than it really needed to. 

Helps Us Make More Intentional Choices.

I heard a story that Steve Jobs used look in the mirror every morning and ask, “If it was the last day of your life, would you want to do what you’re about to do today?” And if the answer was “No” too many days in a row, then he knew something had to change. This is a type of Momento Mori practice, one that helped Jobs make intentional choices about how he spent his time.

I find this is effective for me too. When I have a clear understanding of how precious those squares on my chart are, it becomes so much easier for me to build the life I want, to make the choices I want, to honor my values, to stop waiting for tomorrow or someday. I’m so much more careful and intentional about sacrificing the present moment for the future.

Helps Bring us in the Present Moment.

Time is the actually currency of our lives. And to really experience a moment in time, we need to be here now, we need to be fully present, fully aware of our senses and what we are experiencing.

If we are in our heads rehashing the past or being anxious about the future, we don’t experience our life. We all have examples of when we’ve been in our heads and hours have flown by and we have no idea what we were doing, or when someone was talking to us but we were in our own minds and had no idea or awareness that they were speaking to us.

I find that I am more careful about frittering away my time with ruminating or overthinking something in the past or future. Thinking is of course valuable, but at some point thinking becomes obsessing or ruminating or otherwise unproductive. I’m much more likely to try to shift my attention when I reach that point.

And I am much more likely to check in with what is going on at any given moment, to not be lost in my thoughts when I walk the dog but to notice the daffodils poking out of the ground, the buds on the trees getting fat, to hear the birds calling to each other as I walk through the wooded path, and so on. These little grace notes lift my spirits.

Momento Mori

How to Practice Momento Mori

This is deeply personal. I like to do it once a week, checking off a square on my chart when I’m planning out my week. It helps me set priorities.

Other people prefer more frequent notifications. Steve Jobs did it once a day. And for those of you who want more frequent reminders, tthere is an app, We Croak, which will send you 5 reminders a day about your mortality, in the form of quotes about death. I tried this for a while but 5 times a day was just too many for me.

Some people really don’t like to think about mortality at all and they think this idea of Momento Mori is nuts. I’ve found that they tend to be optimistic, happy people who are satisfied with their lives. As someone with a more pensive, melancholic disposition, Momento Mori serves as a gentle nudge to me to enjoy this amazing gift of life and to keep taking baby steps towards my goals and ideals.

Related Articles:

Why are We So Busy? How to Ditch the Fast Lane

Create a Morning Routine to Jumpstart Your Morning

Grace Notes and the Value of “Regular Old Living”

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