Let's face it, the thought of dying sucks—and this is a very good thing. This means that our will to live is strong and our actions, both conscious and unconscious, will be in line with this desire, protecting us from harm and being conducive toward achieving longevity. Evolution as all but ensured that we maintain a strong will to live and avoid death—which includes maintaining a healthy aversion to death. Those of our ancestors who welcomed death with open arms, at least from an early age, would have won themselves a Darwin award and all but eliminated themselves from the gene pool. Our ancestors are those who balanced a healthy respect for death with an appreciation for life. To increase our well-being, we don't need to believe in a perfect afterlife, and we don't need to lie to ourselves and others by pretending that we like the idea that we will almost certainly one day cease to exist. If we want to increase our wealth, we might cut back on expenses while increasing our income. Likewise, if we want to increase out well-being, we can minimize the negatives associated with dying while maximizing the positives of living.
Of course, this question is meant to be ironic because if we are not born, we don't exist, so we can't feel (did I really have to explain that?). But the question is also meant to make one realize that the thought of non-existence in only something those who exist can experience, that is, once we are dead, we are not going to be concerned about anything. The problem is it is the present "us" that frets about our future non-existence, but why exactly? I will argue that "fretting" can be used to motivate us to live a better life.
As mentioned earlier, from an evolutionary perspective, our fear of death is deeply ingrained, just like other biological drives. But there are also unique reasons why each of us may fear death. For example, one might worry about how his or her death would affect his or her family. Once the fears have been identified, we can address them from a Humanist perspective.
Those who believe in an eternal paradise where we are all reunited with our loved ones, embrace what is referred to as a positive delusion, or a belief held firm contrary to available evidence in which the belief has positive effects. Much research has demonstrated that a belief in the afterlife does contribute to happiness and well-being (e.g., Smith, Range, & Ulmer, 1991), but these studies do not measure the related decrease in well-being resulting from the effects of holding these kinds of beliefs. For example, a widow may believe that she will be reunited with her husband in Heaven, and therefore spend the rest of her life pushing away other potential partners, which can have a serious deleterious effect on well-being. This focus on "the next life" comes at a clear expense in this life. As Humanists, our focus is on the overall well-being in this life, and only this life. We might be tempted to conclude that one's belief in Heaven is not authentic, since he or she avoids death just like the rest of us. Rationally speaking, if one was certain Heaven existed why would anyone hang around this place? The answer has to do with something I call holistic dissonance—a cognition in conflict with non-cognitive desires or biological drives. A good analogy is one's strong biological desire to eat way too much junk food despite the rational understanding that a large amount of junk food has negative effects on one's health. Our behaviors are strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures, and this influence can be extremely difficult to overcome. In the case of believing in Heaven, evolution is protecting us from our own possibly fatal behaviors resulting from unsupported beliefs.
The fear that one's death will have a serious negative impact on one's family's well-being is a justified one, but not one that can't be overcome by taking the necessary precautions to ensure one's family is well taken care of—which includes not only financially, but emotionally. Perhaps one might make sure his last will and testament is updated, his businesses can survive and continue to make money for his family, he talks with his wife and makes sure she understands that he has no problem with her remarrying (after he is gone, of course) if that is her desire, and he become the best father to his children now rather than "someday" when everything is perfect and he "has more time" for them. These specific actions would increase one's well-being by lessening the negative emotions associated with the worry of death and increasing the quality of relationships.
We cannot claim certainty about the impossibility of some form of positive existence post death—a fact where even the most rational Humanist may find a ray of hope. But we don't live our lives based on remote possibilities, rather we live our lives based on realistic probabilities. The best we can do is be prepared for death and mitigate the associated worries and fears, then spend the rest of our lives focusing not on death, but life.
This is not a practice; this is the big game. This is not a rehearsal; this is both opening night and the final performance. This is not some test; this is real life. So put your game face on and enjoy the ride!
Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.
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