#13: Would You Be Happy in Heaven?

In my previous post, I explained the downside of immortality.  If you had infinitely many days to live, each day would have a value of 1/.  It would, in other words, have a value of 0.  Under these circumstances, you would probably end up like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.  You would waste your days and might, as a result, end up wasting the one life you have to live.  (Spoiler alert: Bill Murray gets it right in the end.)

The way to prevent this from happening is to acknowledge your own mortality.   You need to keep in mind, as you go about your daily business, that you have only X days left to you.  The value of X might be 29,200 (eighty years of living).  It might also be 1, though: this could be your last day on earth.  Indeed, for 150,000 people now walking the planet, X does equal 1.

Some of these individuals—convicted murderers on death row, daredevils about to do something foolhardy, and gravely ill individuals—might have woken up suspecting that today would be the day they die.  Many more of these 150,000, though, won’t have seen it coming.

Acknowledging our mortality, the Stoics say,  is an important step toward having a happy, meaningful life.  They don’t want us to dwell on death; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence.  We should instead allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about the fact that X, the number of days we have left to us, is a finite number.  Doing this, they believed, will make us much less likely to waste our days doing pointless things.

Now let us turn our attention to heaven, which is where most people hope to spend their afterlife—if they have one.  In heaven, not only would all their desires be fulfilled, but this state of affairs would last forever.  As a result, they reason, they would be eternally happy in heaven.  But would they?

Notice that in heaven, because you have infinitely many “days” allotted to you, each day will have infinitesimal value to you, meaning that you would have little reason to make the most of it: if you waste today, you’ve still got infinitely many tomorrows to make up for it!  One therefore suspects that people in heaven would end up like those disgruntled 20-year-olds who, because they have not yet acknowledged their mortality, fritter away their days on pointless endeavors.

But wait a minute!  In heaven, all our wishes will be fulfilled.  Won’t that make us happy?

It depends on whether we have “mastered” our desires, an issue I have explored at length elsewhere.  If we have, then yes, having our desires fulfilled will make us happy.  But if we haven’t, getting what we want will simply trigger in us a new desire, for something even better.  We will spend our days on a satisfaction treadmill, working hard to get what we want, only to find ourselves as dissatisfied as we previously were.  (Does this sound like anyone you know?)  It is not a recipe for a happy life.

What would life in heaven be like?  The Bible repeatedly assures its readers that heaven is where they want to go, but provides almost no information about what life would be like there.

The Quran, by way of contrast, is more forthcoming about the “paradise” that awaits devout Muslims.  There will be, we are told, springs gushing with water (55:66).  At meals, there will be lots of fruit (43:73), and diners will be able to enjoy “flesh of fowl such as they desire.”(56:21)  Beverages will be served in goblets of gold (43:71).  Furnishings will be lavish: there will be green cushions and beautiful rich carpets,(55:76) as well as couches lined with silk brocade (55:54).

This description doubtless would have impressed seventh-century Arabs, but to those of us in the 21st century—including many Arabs—it sounds like a pretty primitive lifestyle.  What, no indoor plumbing?  No electricity?  And—gasp!—no smart phones?

Realize that if you are reading this, there is a very good chance that you are living in what seventh-century Arabs—and for that matter, even your great-grandparents!—would have regarded as heaven on earth.  You have air conditioning in summer and central heating in winter; running cold and hot water; flush toilets; electricity; a variety of miracle drugs at your disposal; airplanes that can, in a few relatively comfortable hours, take you to distant lands; access to most books without leaving your home; and, for those who aren’t bookish, the ability to watch the latest sporting event live in the privacy of your living room.  And yet, so many of us remain unsatisfied!

Like I say, unless you learn to master your desires, you would likely be dissatisfied even in heaven; and if you do learn to master your desires, you won’t need to gain access to heaven to be satisfied with your life and circumstances.

And one final comment is in order.  As we have seen, in the paradise described in the Quran, people will drink from golden goblets.  This sounds wonderfully luxurious, but we should keep in mind that as drinking vessels, golden goblets have two big disadvantages: they are heavy and they prevent us from seeing the beverage they contain.  What would be nice is if goblets could be made out of a lightweight, transparent material that would impart no taste to the beverage they contain.  Wait a minute!  We already have such a substance—glass, which is readily available to us, even though we don’t live in paradise.  Isn’t that grand!

#12: The Stoic Formula for a Good Life

Take a look at the following formula:


It is not the formula for having a happy and meaningful life; it is instead the time-dependent Schrödinger equation. It describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes over time.

If you want to have a good life, you do not need to master this formula, which is a good thing since so many of us have forgotten how to do partial differential equations.

Now take a look at this formula:

          X = the number of days you have left to live

It is a formula that anyone can use, even someone with the most rudimentary mathematical ability. It also comes as close as anything to being the Stoic formula for having a happy, meaningful life.

For most people, most of the time, the exact value of X is unknown. But one thing that is certain is that X is finite: none of us will live forever.

Some people live in denial of this fact. Many more resent it: they wish they could live forever. But from a Stoic point of view, if we wish to have a happy, meaningful life, it is very important that we keep in mind that our own personal X is a finite number. Here’s why.

If you have X days left to live, today will represent 1/X of your life. Thus, if X = 2, today represents 1/2 of your life, and if X = 100, today represents 1/100 of your life. But suppose X were infinite. Then the value of today would be 1/∞, which is equal to 0.

What this means is that if you go through life believing that you are immortal, your days will have zero value. You can waste a day and not lose anything by doing so. You will end up like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day—which is, by the way, on my list of the top five “meaning of life” movies. Or you will end up like many young people who have not yet acknowledged their own mortality.

If you believe that you have finitely many days to live, though, they will be things of value, and the fewer of them you have, the more valuable they will be. You will realize that life is simply too short for the kind of nonsense that many people allow themselves to get distracted by. Time you spend on petty quarrels is precious time wasted. So is time spent worrying about things you cannot control.

I have known bedridden 90-year-olds who were vastly more appreciative of life and therefore more fully alive than many 20-year-olds. When a 90-year-old opens her eyes in the morning and sees the ceiling, it is cause for celebration: another day of life has been granted, another chance to get it right!

A 20-year-old, by way of contrast, might wake up angry about something, only to spend the rest of the day complaining about it. She might complain about her clothes, her hair, her job, her boyfriend—you name it. She might vent these complaints because she thinks it is the duty of other people to remove the obstacles to her happiness. Or maybe all she wants from other people is their sympathy. Either way, it is a recipe for a miserable existence. The illusion of immortality comes with a hefty price tag.

The Stoics spent time contemplating their own death. They didn’t fear death; nor did they fixate on it. But they did periodically entertain flickering thoughts about it. By doing so, they put their daily life into perspective: yes, today may not be going as planned, but it is nevertheless a precious thing. It is one of the X days that I have left to live, so I must not waste it. Indeed, I must do my best to savor it.

Yes, the person you are talking to may be annoying and even offensive. Yes, your boss may be overly demanding. Yes, it may be raining and you have forgotten your umbrella. Yes, yes, yes. And yet, here you are, alive and breathing, in a world that is profoundly beautiful, if only you make it your business to look for its beauty.