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I'm A Psychologist & Here's How Thinking About Death Can Help You Live A Better Life

Cassie Holmes, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist
By Cassie Holmes, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist
Cassie Holmes, Ph.D., is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where she is an award-winning teacher and researcher. Holmes’s work on the intersection of time and happiness has been widely published in lead academic journals and featured in such outlets as NPR, The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and more.
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Image by Carina König / Stocksy
November 8, 2022
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Gathering together to celebrate a life, we were reminded how good one can be. Shaking slightly and full of emotion, the speaker approached the front of the room. She pulled out a piece of paper and rested it on the lectern:

As we stand here today to remember Nicole, I want to be clear that this funeral is going against her wishes. In her final days, she said, "I know you'll throw me a fancy schmancy funeral, but I hate being the center of attention. Just get me in the ground…oh, and make sure everyone is well fed…maybe little tins of homemade granola as party favors?"

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That was Nicole. She enjoyed living a life under the radar where she found fulfillment in small moments of joy and by surrounding herself with people she loved. She was a hands-on, loving mother but always careful not to smother her children. When her eldest son said, "I don't want to go to college," she simply shrugged and said, "Fine by me…I have a small sum of money I saved for your college fund. Come back to me with a plan for being happy and self-sufficient, and it's yours to spend however you like." And, as you know, both of her children are happy, self-sufficient, and thriving.

Nicole was a loving wife and sparked quite the frenzy with an essay in her book Ideas, Reconsidered in which she pioneered the idea of the five-day-a-week marriage, explaining how everyone benefits from two days a week of separation. With their savings, she and her husband bought a small condo they alternated enjoying to themselves. It seems to have worked for them, happily married for 45 years! 

We will miss Nicole, but her legacy lives on in her children, Ideas, Reconsidered, and the beautiful fruit and vegetable garden she tended so diligently. In her memory, I hope you try to change your mind about something you have always taken for granted as "the way things are done." Oh, and don't forget your tin of homemade granola.

Commemorating Nicole's life reminded us to make the most of ours. But how? How do you live a fulfilling life? How can you spend your time to experience it as meaningful? What legacy do you want to leave? What choices will make you happy in the end? 

What writing your eulogy can teach you about life. 

How will you be remembered? What effect will you have had on the world and those you loved? What goals did you achieve? What did you create? How did you contribute? What words will be used to describe you?

To answer such questions, write your own eulogy. Your eulogy is the speech that someone who survives you will write and deliver in your memory following your passing. In writing this, take another's perspective (you can choose who: e.g., a child, spouse, friend, business associate, and assume you will live into your 90s).

The eulogy opening this piece was written by my student Nicole. Here is another nice example written by my student Justin:

My father didn't always give me the things I wanted…instead, he always gave me what I needed…and while that wasn't easy when specific "things" felt important to me—looking back now, it taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life. The "things" that are really worth having, aspiring toward, and wanting are not bought with money but instead love, hard work, and dedication.

My father was an incredibly dedicated husband, dad, and friend—who constantly praised all of his children on their work—not the result that came from their work. Also, something that was a bit annoying at an early age—but something that got me through the toughest times in my life—I kept hearing my father's voice saying: "You're working so hard, you will overcome this—this challenge is here for a reason." And so, I worked and I overcame—and I constantly thought of my dad as I was doing both.

My father tucked me into bed every night he was in town—and every night he whispered "special words"—as we called them—into my ears. They were different for each of my siblings—so I can only speak to what they were to me. They were always about how special, caring, thoughtful, courageous, inquisitive, and perseverant a girl I was.

Though we won't be able to spend tomorrow together—I want to pass this same devotion and love and encouragement on to my kids. And so, not a night goes by that I don't whisper special words into their ears and tell them how special and caring and wonderful they are—how much we love them—how proud we are of them, and how proud they should be of themselves.

Daddy, I love you—and I want you to know how proud we all are of the father, husband, and friend that you were. You brought so much joy and happiness and dedication to each and every thing you did. You brought passion and understanding and commitment and a way of thinking that made everyone around you that much smarter…wiser…and kinder. I love you.

Now, it's your turn. 

While these two eulogies offer some ideas about how to approach this assignment, your eulogy must be personal and about you. What do you hope will be said about you at the end of your life?

From Nicole's and Justin's eulogies, we learn the qualities each person values in themselves. It's clear what lives they aspire to lead. In fact, they are already living these lives. Sure, some of their noted life experiences (children, marriage, writing a book) have yet to occur. But how they hope to be described at the end of their lives is how I would describe each of them today: Nicole is thought-provoking. Justin is dedicated. And both of them are genuinely good and loving. Based on who they want to be, we learn who they are.

From writing about how they want to be remembered, their values and what they care about become evident. Nicole values open-mindedness. And Justin values hard work and his children, and he values instilling the value of hard work in his children. Writing your eulogy will prove similarly revealing and inspiring. It will clarify the personal attributes you value most in yourself—what ultimately matters to you. This will guide you in how you engage in the world, where you dedicate your efforts, and ways you spend your time.

It is by zooming out to consider your life overall that you can gain clarity on how to make the most of each hour and each day.

Adapted from Happier Hour: How To Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most, by Cassie Holmes, Ph.D. Copyright © 2022 by Cassie Holmes, Ph.D. Used by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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