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The Life Benefits of Contemplating Death

Death awareness can clarify priorities and shore up relationships.

Key points

  • We fear death, as our impulses generally favor survival. Sound mental health requires that loss be accepted and fear be faced.
  • The greatest threat to our being facilitates our keenest awareness of it. Life recovers its vividness and urgency against the backdrop of death.
  • Death awareness engenders affiliative behavior. Contemplating death can drive us toward love.

We fear death, as we are loss averse and our impulses generally favor survival. Thus we tend to repress it. The psychologist Rollo May noted that “a repression of death is a fundamental characteristic of American culture. As in Victorian times, sex was repressed, so now death and its symbolism are repressed. Death is thought of as obscene, unmentionable, pornographic, not to be talked about in polite company."

Yet sound mental health requires that fear be faced, and loss be accepted. In fact, contemplating death can be psychologically beneficial.

A new appreciation for life

Acknowledging our mortality can renew our appreciation of the gift of life. Much of the time in our daily lives we move quite like zombies, on automatic pilot, working mindlessly through our conditioned habits and rote rituals, zoomed in on our mundane troubles and petty, immediate grievances and inconveniences while taking most of what we have—the gifts being alive confers upon us—for granted. In the presence of death, we are called back to our senses, quite literally.

aneak100737 for Pixabay
Source: aneak100737 for Pixabay

Indeed, research suggests that “conscious death awareness may trigger deliberate evaluation and adjustment of one’s personal goals to best cope with an inevitable death, whereby individuals avoid or trivialize goals not perceived as relevant to coping with mortality and may instead increase investment in goals perceived as intrinsically meaningful and supportive.” Life recovers its vividness and urgency against the backdrop of death.

May wrote: “Death is the constant companion of human beings, whether it is recognized or denied. Death is not the opposite of life but a conscious parallel; one could not exist without the other.” The awareness of death sharpens our sense of being, notes May, and it keeps us humble, putting us in the same boat with every other human being; and every other living creature, for that matter.

Perhaps the main motivation for avoiding death awareness is the deep, anxious discomfort the notion can provoke. In dealing with discomfort, we often enact avoidance responses first, as they present an effective short-term solution, an immediate relief.

But here as elsewhere, avoidance turns out to be misguided, and counterproductive in the long run. For one, to repress death implies hostility toward the idea of loss. Yet loss is a necessary feature of living. When you take a right turn, you lose the chance of taking a left. When you change your mind, you lose old convictions. As you mature, you lose your youth, etc.

Accepting loss, and by proxy death, thus enables full-tilt living. Here’s Mozart, writing to his ailing father: “As death (when closely considered) is the true goal of our life, I have made myself so thoroughly acquainted with this good and faithful friend of man, that not only has its image no longer anything alarming to me, but rather something most peaceful and consolatory; and I thank my heavenly Father that He has vouchsafed to grant me the happiness, and has given me the opportunity, (you understand me) to learn that it is the key to our true felicity. I never lie down at night without thinking that (young as I am) I may be no more before the next morning dawns. And yet not one of all those who know me can say that I ever was morose or melancholy in my intercourse with them.”

Enhanced group affiliations

Death awareness can also serve a useful function in our lives since it engenders affiliative behavior. When thoughts of death beckon, we seek the group’s embrace. According to research, “People’s concerns with their own vulnerability and mortality may arouse a deeply rooted, largely unconscious desire to avoid being isolated from others. As a result, the psychological confrontation with death may lead a person to side with the nearest social group.”

But what if multiple group affiliations are available? In that case, we will seek the group that shares our values. According to Terror Management Theory, introduced in the 1980s, people who are exposed to thoughts of death are more likely to reject others who hold a different worldview, thus cementing their protective tribal identity. TMT argues that the uniquely human combination of an evolved survival imperative coupled with our awareness of our own inevitable demise produces existential anxiety. To defend against such anxiety, we activate two psychological mechanisms.

First is "cultural worldview validation." According to the theory, “one way to defuse the psychological threat of death is to immerse oneself in a culture that will exist after one’s own death, thereby bestowing a sense of symbolic immortality that shields individuals from anxiety.” Indeed, multiple studies have shown that “individuals under mortality salient conditions react more favorably to those who adhere to their cultural values and more negatively to those who violate them.” Under threat of death, we turn to lean on our tribal identity, our security blanket.

The second protective move in the face of death awareness is self-esteem enhancement. Faced with thoughts of death, we tend to reassure ourselves that we are exemplars of our culture, are living up to its morals and expectations, and are thus worthy of the protection it offers.

But cultures (and people) are complex and hold multiple, at times competing, values. Research suggests that under conditions of death awareness people tend to adhere to positive (or positively framed) and salient cultural values.

Like all human tendencies, this one too has a dark side. Enhanced tribalism is at the root of much human conflict, warfare, prejudice, etc. For example, research has shown that “reminding whites of their mortality promotes more favorable reactions to white racists.”

At the same time, research also suggests that rejection of "the other" under death salient conditions may be negated when people are primed with the value of tolerance. “The value of tolerance can counteract the effect of mortality salience when it is either highly important or highly accessible to the individual.”

When death enters our awareness, we seek the comfort of approval. One of the most potent sources of such approval comes from those with whom we have intimate relationships. Our closest relationships are the ones most associated in our minds—and evolutionary history—with survival and safety. Indeed, recent research has shown that another mechanism—the formation and maintenance of close relationships—provides additional support in managing the fear of death.

By this argument, close relationships serve to reduce anxiety by offering a “symbolic promise of continuity, lastingness, and death transcendence.” Within the context of a love relationship, we transcend our biological mortality in that our voices and legacies continue to live in the experience and memories of those who loved us.

A debate exists in psychology about whether this death awareness response is—as proposed by TMT—an evolutionary adaptation and whether it is exclusive to death awareness (as opposed to other threats). Yet the important point, pragmatically, is that death awareness clarified priorities, focuses our attention, and provokes strong affiliative responses. As such, it can serve a healing function. The greatest threat to our being facilitates our keenest awareness of it and shores up our deepest sense of belonging. Contemplating death, in other words, can drive us toward love.

More from Noam Shpancer Ph.D.
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