Editor’s Note: “How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
As a kid, I was sure that all old people must be afraid of death.
As I have gotten older, however, it turns out that this is mostly wrong. There are, certainly, people my age (56) who are morbidly afraid of dying—there’s even a diagnosable psychiatric condition for this fear, called thanatophobia, and a whole movement, called transhumanism, dedicated to attempting to postpone death or avoid it altogether. But most older adults I know aren’t really terrified of death per se, but rather of being destroyed as sentient beings. No surprise, then, that what they—we—fear much more is a gradual, de facto death from decline.
In a famous 2014 Atlantic article about why he wanted to die at 75, the physician and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up the fear of decline very neatly: “[Old age] renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining … It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us.”
Fear is a primal negative emotion, processed in the brain’s limbic system involuntarily as a means of self-defense against mortal threats. It was very useful half a million years ago, but it is generally a maladaptation to much of modern life and work. A bad tweet is enough to set off many people's fight-or-flight response. The prospect of a minor career setback can create the same sensation as a threat of physical harm. And full-scale professional or social decline can feel, to some, as threatening as death itself. According to the Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave, the fear of death is an innate fear of nonexistence. For many of us who organize our lives around professional and social competence—who talk about our “life’s work”—life is synonymous with achievement and abilities. When those abilities decline, it can feel like you are in the process of ceasing to exist, of being destroyed.