“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”
This is the cheery reminder that WeCroak, an app developed by a Silicon Valley programmer and a New York yoga teacher, pings you with five times a day. You could be in the middle of anything—lunch, a Netflix binge, fighting a losing battle against your emails—when the words arrive, suddenly and without warning. In other words, much like death itself.
If you’re wondering why anyone would willingly subject themselves to this, consider the app’s central proposition: that thinking about your own death five times a day can make you a happier person.
This theory apparently derives from a Bhutanese folk saying, and given that the country pioneered the concept of gross national happiness, there’s a good chance they’re on to something.
I decided to test this out by spending a week with WeCroak. As a champion navel-gazer, this is exactly the sort of rabidly existential, incredibly pretentious project that I find irresistible by itself. However, I couldn’t deny that the prospect of being happier was a powerful incentive.
After all, who wouldn’t want that?
I download the app mid-morning, and the first quote flashes up on my phone at 12:16 PM. Ironically, I’ve been checking my phone more often than I already do in anticipation of my first reminder, but end up getting caught up with work.
When it does show up, it catches me off-guard in more ways than one:
Having no destination, I am never lost. – Ikkyu
Is that it? It doesn’t exactly motivate me for the afternoon of work which awaits. And saying you’re never lost because you didn’t have a destination in the first place sounds like a limp attempt to justify aimlessness.
I Google Ikkyu and learn that he was an “eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet” who enjoyed very un-Zen pastimes, including drinking, writing erotic poetry, and “cavorting with pavilion girls”.
Bemused, I resolve not to get too caught up with analysing the quote, and to wait and see what else the app turns up. As I resign myself to the rest of my afternoon, however, I realise the app’s caught me right in the middle of one of my weaknesses: the tendency to expect too much.
Over the rest of the day, the app delivers a mixed bag of quotes, including one from Kabir, a 15th-century Sufi poet (“The flute of interior time is played whether we hear it or not”) and, shortly before I turn in, one from Jimi Hendrix (“I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”)
It doesn’t make me think about death, but I do feel better about the small mountain of fish skin crisps I’ve just eaten.
Here’s the thing about WeCroak: I’m quickly realising it can be a bit of a downer. (No, really?)
My train’s been stuck for nearly 20 minutes due to a track fault when this flashes up on my phone, just after 7:00 AM:
And for its part, what was life? Was it perhaps only an infectious disease of matter – just as the so-called spontaneous generation of matter was perhaps only an illness, a cancerous stimulation of the immaterial? – Thomas Mann
Groggy and under-caffeinated, I squint at my phone and promptly drop it back in my bag. A disease of matter is exactly what I feel like, given that I dragged myself out of bed at 6:00 AM for a barre class which I am now going to miss.
Thankfully, my mood improves over the course of the day and several cups of tea, and in the evening, I head to Kinokuniya to pick up some last-minute flight reading (I’m leaving for a short holiday the next day). My eye lands on The Immortalists, about a group of siblings who visit a psychic as children, and spend the rest of their lives grappling with what she predicts for them: the date they will die.
I’ve never heard of the book before, so this is either a) the machinations of destiny and timing at work, or b) the app has breached my subconscious, and I will live in the shadow of my own demise forevermore.
As I’m paying for my purchases, the app sends up my last quote for the day:
Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. – Pema Chodron
I’m neither fearful nor convinced that I’ve stumbled upon the key to the universe, but I spend my commute home contemplating the novel’s premise. Would I truly want to know the date of my death?
I’m starting to think the app has it out for me. I miss my first quote in the scramble to get out of bed, packed, and to the airport, so it’s this quote, my second of the day, that I really pay attention to when it appears just before take-off:
Not money, or success, or position or travel or love makes happiness – service is the secret. – Kathleen Norris
Whoever Kathleen Norris is, she’s right. I definitely don’t feel happy, only annoyed about being guilt-tripped.
Being without Internet access for the next five hours, however, gives me ample opportunity to sit back in my square foot of seating space and work on my ‘death awareness’.
I start by taking stock of my attitude towards death so far. As an agnostic, I’ve never believed in an afterlife; as a millennial, I’m impervious to my mortality by definition. “Live each day as if it were your last”, and other advice to that effect, has always struck me as unrealistic.
My musing, however, comes to a halt when I fall asleep trying to imagine my own funeral.
The rest of the day, unfortunately, turns out to be similarly unproductive. When we arrive, the confusion of switching SIM cards and getting mobile data restored causes the app to hang.
Frustrated, I reset it and go to bed, untroubled by further check-ins from the deep beyond.
“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”
It’s a beautiful morning, the kind that makes one thankful to be alive and able to experience it. The market I’m visiting has a petting zoo open for the day, so I happily plonk myself down, ignoring how the average visitor appears to be around four years old, and ask to hold a bunny. It snuggles into my lap, wrapped in a tea towel, and I am stroking it with an expression of deranged joy when my phone buzzes:
Death happens but once, yet we feel it every moment of our lives; it is worse to dread it than to suffer it. – Jean de la Bruyere
This may be true, but right now the only thing I am dreading is having to return the bunny. That I will one day be unable to see or feel it, or breathe in the fumes of baby animal droppings, is simply beyond my ability to appreciate in that moment.
I put my phone away, but as though sensing the break in my focus, the bunny twitches in my lap. It does not look amused.
The rest of the day passes in similar fashion: I play tourist, and get periodically interrupted by reminders of my impending demise. What bothers me, however, isn’t so much the reminders themselves, but the fact that they’re having close to no impact on me whatsoever.
So far, the app has roused the odd snort of amusement, or mild disconcertion, but no reaction stronger than that. I want to feel something more—joy, gratitude, even existential anguish—but all I feel, mostly, is unmoved.
Am I actually so desensitised, or so complacent, that even the thought of my own death doesn’t bother me? It’s this last thought that disturbs me most of all.
I hear back from a university friend of mine, D, whom I contacted shortly after downloading the app. He works part-time as a Buddhist chaplain and will be temporarily ordained as a monk later this year, so I’m curious to hear what he thinks about WeCroak.
As it turns out, D can’t give me any leads as to the origins of the ‘think about death 5x a day’ practice, but his thoughts about the app uncannily mirror my experience so far.
“To some extent I don’t exactly know how such an app would really have a deep effect. I think that for me it would become similar to getting a screen usage alert from my iPhone. A sort of ‘So what?’” he says.
“Unless this app somehow shows you an image of your future corpse projected as a hologram, but even that might not be so shocking after a while.”
It’s reassuring to hear that I’m not alone in my nonchalance. In fact, a bit more Googling reveals a name for this phenomenon: the mortality paradox.
According to Dr. Stephen Cave, a philosopher at Cambridge University, as thinking beings, we know, cognitively, that we must die one day. At the same time, our minds simply cannot conceive of not existing.
“Death,” he writes, “therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.”
Feeling happier now seems wildly overambitious. In fact, this week is looking increasingly doomed to be an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
The closest I come to transcending this is in the evening, when my friends and I go to check out the Crawley Boatshed (the blue lakeside house which half of Instagram has posed in front of). As I’m waiting in the queue to take the obligatory photo, my phone buzzes:
Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings. – Jane Austen
I think about how awkward I always feel posing for photos. About how I probably won’t even bother posting it to Instagram. About how, in twenty years’ time, the photo will most likely be forgotten in the depths of my cloud storage. About how I might not even be around in twenty years’ time to remember this.
I get my photo taken anyway.
On the sixth day, the app goes haywire.
Instead of sending me my five notifications, it goes into overdrive, sending me around double that over the course of the day. By lunchtime, I’ve heard from Borges (“We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men”), Charlie Chaplin (“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”), and RuPaul (“You are born naked. The rest is drag.”)
The deluge prompts me to try something new. For the rest of the day, I decide to stop opening the quotes. Instead, whenever my phone buzzes, I force myself to take a moment to repeat, over and over again: This is all temporary. All things will pass.
At first, all I feel is embarrassment, because the moment is so ripe for parody it hurts.
To my surprise, however, my thoughts do slowly turn—not to death, which I still can’t comprehend—but to impermanence.
I find myself thinking about the cotton candy stall at the market two days before, and the stray wisps of sugar which caught on the breeze before melting into thin air. The files of keepsakes I’ve amassed over the years: letters, notes, receipts, pressed flowers—and won’t throw away. The photos I can’t delete. The friends I’ve made, scattered across far-flung corners of the world, and will likely never see again. The friendships I once thought could endure anything, and which faded into an awkwardness I don’t recognise.
It would seem that though I’ve had plenty of chances to practise, I’ve never become good at letting go. The everyday art of losing, it strikes me, is much harder to come to terms with than my own eventual non-existence.
The ache in my chest could in no way be confused with happiness. But blooming beside it, small but impossible to ignore, is gratitude; the knowledge that these things became all the more beautiful for having been temporary, more treasured for having come and gone.
I wake up on the last day—of both the experiment and my vacation—to this pearl of wisdom:
Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with kindness and generosity and style. – Rebecca Solnit
Considering some of the quotes I’ve received, such as the one which asked me to consider pus flowing from my corpse, this is really very life-affirming. It’s probably my favourite out of all the quotes from the week, besides the one from RuPaul.
Lying in a park later that day, making the most of the spring sunshine, I take stock of my week with WeCroak.
I didn’t feel consumed by the need to carpe diem the hell out of my remaining days, however many (or few) there might be. I didn’t feel particularly motivated to live my best life, or find myself staring into a black pit of despair. And, sad to say, I largely didn’t find myself feeling happier.
To that end, is WeCroak any more effective at bringing happiness than, say, a night in the company of good friends or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Probably not.
That being said, I’ve come to feel that WeCroak isn’t even about death at all. After all, coming to terms with your mortality isn’t the end goal in itself. It’s only one stage in the pursuit of something larger—the art of how to live better.
I’m still figuring out what that involves, but the app suggests a pretty good starting point: accepting what we must, letting go of the things that don’t matter, and honoring those that do.
And learning to work with the time we have, rather than against it, might help nudge us towards something even more elusive than happiness: meaning.