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The Most Uncomfortable Thought

Pondering this topic is hard—but it can improve long-term happiness

The Most Uncomfortable Thought

On Tuesday, I was in San Antonio giving a keynote at a conference for the American Healthcare Association. My talk explores the power of leaving your comfort zone and ways we can do that today to improve our lives across the board (physical and mental health, work life, relationships, etc.)

My talk typically includes a section about my experience in Bhutan while reporting my book, The Comfort Crisis. I traveled to Bhutan to learn about death. Specifically, how thinking of death and being aware that this ride will end is, yes, uncomfortable in the short-term but seems to alter our decisions in ways that can make us happier in the long term.

I give talks to many groups. But I hadn’t given this talk to an audience that dealt so directly with death. It was a room of doctors, nurses, and hospital admins. I wondered, is the death part going to land?

To determine whether I should include the section, I did what any journalist would do. I started asking questions. I reached out to about 30 people who work in health care. I told them about my situation and asked for their thoughts.

The resounding answer: Talk about it. “We’re around death often, but because of this we can almost become immune to it. We rarely think about how one day we’ll be in the position of our patients,” one nurse explained. “I started thinking more about death after reading your book. And it’s helped me be more empathetic, patient, and changed how I live my life.”

As the great and wise Warren Zevon said, “Life’ll kill you.” Death is, indeed, the only guarantee in life.

It’s easy to forget that. Forgetting is more comfortable because death is the most uncomfortable thought.

This is likely why our society is built to remove reminders of death. When someone dies, we make them look alive as possible for a final 30-minute viewing. We then put them in the ground and are told to stay busy and “take our mind off it.” Even our food system is designed to hide the fact that for one creature to live, another often has to die.

Ignoring death wasn’t always the American way. That’s according to Gary Laderman, Ph.D., a death historian at Emory University. I spoke to him while reporting The Comfort Crisis. He told me that with the rise of modern medicine, we began believing science would always save us.

We now overmedicalize, undergoing more pain and suffering at the end of life for the possibility of delaying death. Harvard Medical School surgery professor and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant Dr. Atul Gawande notes that 25 percent of all Medicare spending is for the 5 percent of patients in their final year of life.

Most of that money goes to treatments that are of little lifesaving benefit and often just put the person through more unnecessary suffering. We take weird supplements, believe impossible things, and do bizarre things to try to push death a few days downfield.

I’ve written before about men who in the name of living longer have illegally acquired dangerous pharmaceuticals from overseas labs, paid thousands to have the blood of younger men pumped into their bodies, and spent millions funding teams of scientists who will, they believe, discover a fountain of youth in pill form.

This is a distraction—a distraction from the fact that life is happening right here, right now.

Existential philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.”

Science suggests he’s onto something. For example, scientists at the University of Kentucky had one group of people think about a painful visit to the dentist and the other contemplate their own death. The death thinkers afterwards said they were more happy and fulfilled in life. A team at Eastern Washington University found that thinking about death enhances gratitude. A study in Psychological Science discovered that people who thought about their own death were more likely to show concern for people around them. They did things like donating time, money, and even their own blood to blood banks.

You can read more about death, how we can relate to it, and why being mindful of death is part of why Bhutan is one of the happiest countries on earth in my book, The Comfort Crisis.

The trip changed me. I now think about death for a moment every night before I go to bed. It’s an uncomfortable thought. But I wake up the next day more alive.

2% Top Two

My two favorite things this week ...

The Podcast “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling”

J.K. Rowling is famous for writing the Harry Potter series but has become infamous in the modern culture wars for her comments on sex and gender issues. She hasn’t spoken much publicly about the controversy. Then Megan Phelps-Roper wrote her a letter.

Megan grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, a most hateful hate group. But she left the group in her 20s, realizing the insanity of her family’s messaging (Megan's appearance on NPR's Fresh Air or Sam Harris' podcast Making Sense is a good intro to her and her story). “Like Rowling,” Megan recently wrote, “I knew what it was like to be an object of intense hatred. But I also knew the value of good-faith conversation, and the role it can play in bridging even the deepest divides.”

Rowling responded. She’d read Megan’s memoir about leaving extremism. And so Megan headed to Scotland and began taping conversations with Rowling. Megan also spoke with people on all sides of the cultural issue. The result is the podcast series linked above. The first two episodes are out now. I get the sense that Megan has made a good-faith effort to unpack and understand a fraught topic.

But that’s not what the podcast is really about. Megan explained, “It’s about the polarization of public opinion and the fracturing of public conversation. It’s about the chasm between what people say they believe and how they’re understood by others. It’s about what it means to be human—to be a social animal who feels compelled to be part of a tribe. And it’s about the struggle to discern what is right when our individual view of the world is necessarily limited and imperfect.”

The podcast is as of this writing number 5 in all of iTunes. Full disclosure: Megan and I have become friends on Instagram. She messaged me yesterday morning. “This is another application of your Comfort Crisis model, I think. Or at least, in avoiding the distress of a very hard conversation, we’ve made it even more difficult … (but) it seems like people are finally ready to go there in spite of the discomfort.”

Big shoutout and love to Megan for being willing to go there. The show opens with my favorite quote, which is from Joseph Campbell. “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Yes.

A Visit to GORUCK HQ

I’ll be dropping into GORUCK HQ in Jacksonville tomorrow to talk rucking, gear, and Sandlot JAX. Got questions, requests, or comments about rucking gear for the GORUCK team? Send them my way. I’ll post responses on Instagram and highlight some of the best new info I get out of the visit in an upcoming edition of the newsletter.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week,


When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker and Ruck Plate.