A documentarian finds the perfect solution to happiness—what happened when he faked his own death
Too much going on, but feeling like you never have enough. Overscheduled. Overworked. Overwhelmed. Overstressed. Welcome to 2020.
While this year has only made emotional exhaustion even more acute, burnout was already a crisis long before the pandemic. That's why, early last year, when I started brainstorming ideas for my HBO Max docuseries about happiness, I knew I had to do an episode on work-life balance.
There I was on the other side of 40 — a new husband, a new dad, and realizing I didn't really have space for these new roles in my life. In fact, when I became a father, I figured I should probably work even more to support my family. That turned out to be a bad move.
I was in Montreal filming a movie at the time, working on my eight other projects whenever I wasn't on set. It basically rendered my wife a single mom. We were both burned out, and the little time we had together was spent fighting about things that the other person wasn't doing.
One day, I woke up and just started typing my emotions into a Google Doc. Stream of consciousness. So many words. Oooh, now I'm saying all these things I didn't even know I was feeling!
But the best part of that journal entry was the first sentence. It was something I had never said to myself — the kind of statement I was immune to because I always believed in being "strong" and "optimistic" no matter what, even though I was actually miserable. At the very top, in all-caps, were the words: "I AM SO UNHAPPY."
I guess you could call that my "Jerry McGuire" moment. Breakdown. Breakthrough.
The next day, I called my therapist, Janice. I told her how I felt overwhelmed. I love working, and I love creating new projects, and now more than ever, I felt like I needed to earn more money. But I also wanted to find a way to be home more, to spend time with my wife and daughter. I wanted to have fun again. At some point, adulthood had become a burden.
About a month later, one of my best friends, Matt Pohlson, came over for dinner. I told him what I was going through, and he confided in me. "Dude, me too," he said. While Matt's circumstances were different, we realized that we both were at our low points. We had invested all of our self-esteem into work.
That's when things became clear: The mountain that we keep trying to climb every day might never actually reach a peak. We were tired as hell and feeling like there was no end in sight. I would later discover that we were suffering from something called "workaholism." Most of our friends have it (and you probably do, too).
I asked Matt to join me on a trip for my docuseries, to South Korea, a country that was also experiencing a work-life balance crisis. What was once one of the poorest countries shifted into overdrive to become one of the greatest economic comebacks of the last 50 years. But the downside? Workaholism and staggering levels of depression and suicide.
In Seoul, there's even a bridge that's affectionately referred to as the "Death Bridge." To address the issue of high suicide, the government put up positive, uplifting statements along the guardrails, hoping to change to someone's mind: "How are you doing?" "Tomorrow's sun will rise." "Go see the ones you miss." "How would you like to be remembered as a father?" Beneath the statements are pictures of delicious meals. The logic is that great food make us happy and reminds us of our family.
But the most innovative approach we saw was a concept called the "death cafe." It's pretty simple — you pay to act out your own funeral.
When Matt and I arrived at the cafe, we received a form to write our own eulogies. There was a waiting room of other people in line to "fake die." Someone came by and took our pictures to put over the caskets.
Then, a guy dressed as the grim reaper appeared (that's not an exaggeration — he wore all black and a tall, pointy hat). "If you only had six months left, would you live your life the same way you did yesterday?" he asked, while walking us to our caskets. We climbed inside. The doors closed. Silence. And there I was, in complete darkness.
A bell rang after 10 minutes, and we all sat up. One by one, we read our eulogies out loud:
"Mom, dad, Geeta, Mahaley, Amelie, Everyone … I once read a Buddhist philosopher who said, the measure of one's happiness in life is the extent to which, by the time he's passed, he's contributed to evolution. I hope your lives are better as a result of having me. I know mine was better because of you. I had so much fun. Laughing. Loving. Crying. God, I'm just so lucky. I love you all so much. I'll miss you … but maybe not, because dead people don't have feelings. Bye, Rav."
We laughed. We cried. It was a life-changing journey — and probably my favorite scene in the series. I want you to experience it for yourself, so I'd rather not give too much of it away.
But I will tell you this: Attending your own funeral is life-affirming. It changes your perspective on happiness. You realize what really matters. You picture the people who will miss you the most. You see how they were affected. Why they were affected. Work doesn't come up at all. All people remember is how you made them feel.
Perhaps our funeral is the culmination of the work that really matters.
In a sense, the way you live your life can be, in effect, a true reflection of the eulogy that's perfect for you — so perfect, in fact, that you couldn't have written it any better yourself.
Ravi Patel is an actor, documentarian, philanthropist and director of the autobiographical documentary, "Meet the Patels." He also the director of the HBO Max docuseries, "Ravi Patel's Pursuit of Happiness." Ravi currently lives in L.A. with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter @showmetheravi.
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