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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Opinion |
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Being Well

I suspect I am not the only person who from time to time lies awake in bed at 2 am thinking about the impossibly huge issue of eternity. Once eternity is raised in my mind, a train of thought follows which includes other questions such as: “What’s the point of our existence?” and, “Where does something as relatively trivial as needing to get to sleep to get up to go to university in the morning fit in?’

An excellent book is The Antidote. Happiness for Those Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by English journalist Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman devotes a part of his book to discussing our preoccupation with immortality and the extent to which we avoid facing the fact that we will all one day die. Religion,  material possessions, alcohol and drug use, and other distractions all have a part to play in helping us cope with our fear of the future.

Burkeman proposes that we should spend more time on a daily basis reflecting on the reality of our eventual death and in essence realise that once we are dead we will have nothing to worry about. This is a simplistic over-summary of his argument, but nevertheless, we in Western countries are pretty good at avoiding subjects like mortality except at 2 am in the morning! Paradoxically, living well while at the same time reflecting regularly on death can help us to be more content and keep anxiety and fear at bay.

So what do I suggest is a way forward in this time when the future appears to be filled with increasing uncertainty, global warming, natural disasters, and difficult career prospects for university graduates?

Firstly, fear of and for the future is nothing new. We have been socialised to believe that we should have great control over our futures, and epidemic rates of anxiety among young people can be expressions of our preoccupation with the future. The answer lies in recognising the link between anxiety and an over-focus on the future, and putting in place strategies to spend more of our time and our emotional and thinking energy on living well today, accepting the reality of hardship, making choices to not obsess about unresolvable future fears, and limiting exposure to unduly bleak news stories.

We have more ability than we realise to hold an optimistic view of the future, and when we feel overwhelmed we should limit our focus to the present and remember that tomorrow, in all likelihood we will wake up and feel brighter than we did last night. If all else fails, I take great comfort from the overwhelming fact that the happiest people are the elderly – and wouldn’t you think that because they are statistically closer to death, they should be the most miserable!

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