Can remembering my death improve my life?

I’ve been lately I felt like life was passing me by, so I downloaded an app that reminds me five times a day that I’m going to die. I thought it would help me accept my mortality and focus on what really mattered, but that just makes me worried. Is something wrong with me? Is the point of being anxious? Do you think these apps can be helpful?

“Pinged to Death.”

Dear pinged to Death,

I think there’s something wrong with you. Or rather, you seem to suffer from a problem that is endemic to all of humanity, a species with an almost unlimited ability to live by denying the only inevitability. Even explicit reminders of our death – whether it is the death of a loved one or a telephone notification – fail to provoke fear and trembling worthy of the abyss and instead fill our lives with vague anxiety, ambient fear. “Death,” WH Auden said, “is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” It is, by the way, one of the quotes from WeCroak, an application that I assume you use, and which follows its death reminders with pieces of literary wisdom by Kierkegaard, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood and others.

We live in an age of slow crises, ones that are happening at a pace that makes them easy to ignore. Social security is declining from year to year. Glaciers are melting faster, but still at glacial speed. The sea is warming at a speed that could boil the proverbial frog. Death lurks behind them all. Occasionally, the horror of our plight becomes real through a natural disaster or a UN climate report, but alarm bells disappear with the rhythm of the news cycle. Judgment Day – probably the most deliberate attempt to keep the focus on these threats – is currently 100 seconds to midnight, which puts us at about a minute and a half, in the time scale of existential risk, since our final death.

Death Reminder applications are essentially Doomsday for the individual. In fact, some of them contain real clocks so you can watch, in real time, how the remaining hours are slipping away. Hour of Death, a website that has been active since 1998, predicts the day of your death, although its estimates are based on somewhat rough data – your age, BMI, whether you smoke. A few years ago, a horror movie Countdown he envisioned an application that was able to intuitively, up to a second, represent the time of a person’s death, with the user agreement serving as a deal with the devil. (Movie title: “Death? There’s an app for it.”) The film inspired a real-life app built on the same premise – without, apparently, supernatural knowledge, but it drove enough people crazy to temporarily run the App Store.

WeCroak is not so morbid. His inspirational quotes on mortality aim to remind users to stop and consider what they are doing, a kind of companion to numerous awareness apps. Its co-founder came up with the idea while in trouble Candy Crush addiction, and many users have noticed that the app, which tends to interrupt hours spent on Twitter or TikTok, has forced them to face how many lives they spend on social media. In other words, the product belongs to that growing category of technology that is designed to eliminate the problems that technology has created. If digital platforms remain our most reliable distraction from the harsh facts of our mortality – so the logic goes – maybe we can channel the same tools to break those psychological tampons and bring us to more enlightened comfort with our impending death.

WeCroak, as you may already know, is partly inspired by a Bhutanese saying that happiness can be achieved by thinking about death five times a day. Bhutan has often been ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, and WeCroak seems to trade a casual exoticism not uncommon in a culture of consciousness, presenting Eastern traditions as antidotes that will finally free us from the trance of modernity. However, the fact that it only increased your anxiety is not at all surprising to me. It is not so easy to simply want to face the truth that you are used to ignoring. (If nothing else, the idea that we can reverse the whole course of Western denial of death with a free app is more a symptom of our technological arrogance than its tonic.) The Bhutanese practice of thinking about death has grown out of a broader cultural context rituals in the country and the tradition of observing a period of mourning of 49 days. Bhutan’s dominant religion, Buddhism, teaches that transcendence does not depend on escape, but on accepting the brutal facts of existence – namely, the fact that life itself suffers.

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