Why Thinking About Your Death Can Be Good For You
Published: September 11, 2015
Category: Better Living
I’d like you to imagine a scenario. Picture yourself on your commute to work. Maybe you’re walking down a busy sidewalk, or sitting in your car as you creep agonizingly towards the office. It’s familiar and routine - a day like any other.
Except it’s not. You become vaguely aware of a fast moving object in your peripheral vision as a car slams into you.
And, that’s that. It’s all over.
Not a great thing to think about. But we see it in the news everyday, these random and unfortunate accidents. And many of us have had people close to us come to an early end. It's always sad and unexpected.
Death is an eventuality that many of us do our best to ignore. Out of sight, out of mind…right? But what if I told you that thinking about death can actually help you live a better life now?
Here are four ways that thinking about death can be good for you.
Improves your Health
Thinking about your demise can help keep you healthy. If you’ve ever seen a graphic warning on a cigarette package, you’ve seen this premise in action.
This type of strategy is based on the Terror Management Health Model. Even though death can be threatening, this theory suggests that awareness of our mortality can give meaningful purpose to our behaviours and can lead us to live a longer life.
In a 2011 study by Cooper et al. in the journal Self and Identity, researchers explored this concept in relation to health empowerment. One group of women were prompted to think about death before performing a Self Breast Exam, while another other group was not primed. The empowerment levels of the participants were measured before and after the study. The death-prompted women reported higher levels of empowerment – i.e., they felt that their actions, like a Self Breast Exam, could have an impact on the trajectory of their own health. Other studies have shown similar results for improving sunscreen use, increasing exercise levels and quitting smoking. So put that death-anxiety to good use for a healthier you.
Makes you Nicer
Could a stroll through a cemetery make you nicer? That’s what a 2008 study led by Matthew Gailliot found. In this field experiment, actors were stationed in a cemetery, or one block away from the cemetery. The actors then struck up a conversation either about the value of helping others, or something benign within earshot of passers-by. One of the actors then dropped a book. Would a stranger stop to pick it up? And would it matter where that happened and what they overheard?
It turns out it does. The people that heard the “helping” conversations were 40% more likely to pick up the book when it was dropped in the cemetery than when it was dropped elsewhere. This study, as well as other similar ones, shows us that a reminder of mortality can help motivate greater feelings of empathy and compassion.
Boosts your Mood
Clinical psychologist Irvin Yalom conducted several experiments where he prompted participants with questions like “If you’re aware life is short and that you could die sooner than you think, how does it make you feel?”. Participants would then write out their responses. After a week of these writings, the participants answered questions designed to assess how they experienced positive and negative emotions.
Contrary to what you may think, those that reflected about death reported a more positive mood, lower levels of depression, and improved self-esteem.
This follows a similar pattern seen in economics and psychology. When something is perceived as scarce, it becomes more valuable. Knowing that our time on this earth is not limitless makes it all the more valuable.
Leave a Legacy
Thinking about our mortality can focus our thoughts on the immediate. But there is evidence it can also turn our attention to the future.
Researchers Wad- Benzoni and Tost conducted an experiment where participants read one of two stories: one about an aircraft accident that caused a fatality, and a story about a mathematician. The participants were then asked how much money they would donate to two charities; one that would assist poor communities right now and one that would focus on creating future improvements in those same communities. Those that had read the article about the plane accident said they would donate more money to the future-thinking charity. A second similar study replicated the results.
When people are primed with thoughts of death, they are able to think beyond themselves and support organizations that they feel could benefit the world after they are gone.
Death will one day find every one of us. As we’ve seen, thinking about this fact doesn’t mean you are depressed or pessimistic. It opens up a world of opportunity, as well as giving us a chance to consider what we will leave behind.
Good health and live well!