Monday, May 05, 2008

Positive Psychology and Death

Anyone who thinks that Positive Psychology is just about smiley faces and being over-optimistic, read no further, unless you want to be disillusioned.
If you really want to find out more about positive psychology, I recommend subscribing to the Friends of Positive Psychology listserver which you can do by e-mailing
One of the things that has suprised me most since joining this mailing list is the number of posts on the subject of death.
Number one post on death in the positive psychology world concerns the free on-line lectures given by dying and wise 47-year-old professor Randy Pausch, especially his "Last Lecture", which you can view in long or short versions. He's just published a book called The Last Lecture.

In another vein, the poem variously called "If I had my life over" and "I would pick my daisies" and attributed to either Nadine Stair, aged 85 or Erma Bombeck after she found out she had a fatal illness ,has also been cited as an inspiration to live more authentically.
One version of it goes like this.

I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd
have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.

Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I'd have more of them. In fact,
I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments.

One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.

I've been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.

If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

In positive psychology jargon, thinking about death connects with "counting your blessings" as well as living more authentically. Eric Weiner in his Geography of Bliss also comments on stumbling on the importance of death in the search for happiness. I suspect that as positive psychology gets more and more mature, it will increasingly engage with death and its importance to life.

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Life before Death exhibition

Recently I taught a ten week Personal Development Through Philosophy course, and, though we talked about many interesting things - wisdom, happiness, meaning, love, work - the topic that grabbed students attention most this time was death. I don't think that this was because the group was particularly negative or morbid - it wasn't - but because it's the one aspect of the human condition that is both inescapable and most frequently denied. Many live as if they believe they are guaranteed their full three-score and ten years - as if important things can wait.The truth is that even if we do not suffer an early death, time is our most important and non-renewable commodity. Whilst philosophers may associate a focus on death and time with existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger, other rather more populist thinkers have echoed similar sentiments. I particularly appreciate John Lennon's
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (from the song Beautiful Boy)

It's one thing to nod sagely at the above thoughts, another to let it affect one's life. If you are anywhere near Euston Station in the next couple of weeks, I recommend half an hour spent at the Life Before Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road.

The collection describes itself in this way

24 sets of photographs taken before and after death

Nothing teaches us more about life than death itself. Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels asked 24 terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last weeks and days. From these vigils came a series of insightful descriptions and photographic portraits taken before and after death.

Far from being gloomy, these intimate concerns of the dying reveal the preciousness and transience of life, and make us question what we often take for granted

You can view a slideshow of photos before and after death here.

The exhibition has received many positive reviews - see for example this five-star review. Even The Sun did a positive feature on it.

Personally, I found the exhibition moving and a further confirmation of the importance of facing the possibility of premature death head on.
One 68-year-old could scarcely believe the way death was cheating her out of her retirement. She had been working hard all her life to finally enjoy herself. "Can't death wait?" she pleaded. It could not - eight days later, she was dead.

Another of the condemned, aged 47, mused "It's absurd really. It's only now that I have cancer that for the first time, ever, I really want to live." Existential therapist Irvin Yalom has longobserved how impending death trivialises the trivial. Wouldn't it be good if we could do this without the sentence of imminent death hanging over us?

The exhibition is free and continues until 18th May.

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