When Thoughts of Death Are Good for Life

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We're all going to die. That's not breaking news.

Usually, our own mortality is not something we enjoy thinking about. But, contemplating the inevitable reality of death can actually produce a wide range of postive impacts, making us better versions or ourselves — from choosing healthier lifestyles to increased empathy. 

On the surface, it seems like thinking about death would be depressing. In the field of research known as Terror Management Theory (TMT), which focuses on how the conscious brain struggles to avoid or ignore thoughts of death, most psychologists studied the negative impacts of thinking about death. A paper published this month changes that by contending that thoughts of death can make for a better life.

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Kenneth Vail, of the University of Missouri, told the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) that previous to his new paper, "There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”

Vail and his collegues analyzed the findings of many studies that link thoughts about mortality to a wide variety of positive behavoirs. Most of the studies described follow a similar model: presenting people with something that forces them to think about death, and then follow up with a lifestyle or attitude survey.

For example, after recieving information about the risk of dying from skin cancer, more participants in a study opted to wear sunscreen.

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But, it's often more complicated than that. A theme throughout much of the research is that thinking about death motivates us to be better versions of ourselves. But, how that motivation is translated into behavoir depends on what gives each individual self esteem. For example, for people who base their self-esteem on physcial attractiveness, if they are exposed to messages that tan skin is attractive and messages about mortality, they are less likely to use high SPF sunscreen than participants exposed to messages that pale skin is attractive. 

One study measured the effect on empathy that resulted from walking through a cemetary, which serves to remind people of death without explicitly discussing it. Participants overheard a staged conversation about the benefits of helping others as they walked. Compared to control subjects walking elsewhere, who overheard the same conversation, people in the cemetary were more likely to help a women struggling to pick up her dropped belongings. 

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"Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism,” Vail told the SPSP.

Photo credit: Corbis

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