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Does Death Awareness Heighten the Meaning of Life?

Life Appreciation and Thoughts of Death

Leo Tolstoy once wrote that there is no meaning in life that death cannot undo and destroy. St. Augustine wrote similarly that death awareness could leave him in constant angst, because everyhing he values in life, including his own life, could vanish at every moment.

In contrast, several philosophers and psychologists (e.g., Yalom, Heidegger) have argued that a heightened awareness of mortality leads people to live better, happier and more fulfilling lives. Many monks throughout history believed this as well - they would keep skulls on their mantles as constant reminders of life's finitude.

Recent research by Laura King, a psychology professor at The University of Missouri, and colleagues tested the interplay between death awareness and the value placed on life. Specifically, they applied the scarcity principle (that when something is perceived as more rare, it rises in value) to hypothesize that death awareness should heighten the value of life by heightening awareness of life's scarcity.

In Study 1, they randomly assigned participants to a condition where they answered questions about their own death, or control questions unrelated to death. They found that the group that had been thinking about death later rated life as more valuable (e.g., assigned greater meaning to life) than the other participants.

In Studies 2 and 3, these researchers had people read about either life having a high value (psychological or financial) or a low value. They then measured the accessibility of death related thoughts (e.g., answering G R A _ _ with "grave"). People had higher thoughts of death after reading the essays arguing that life has a lot of value.

Together, these studies suggest that the value given to life is intricately linked to thoughts of death. When people value life more, death thoughts are higher. And, when people are thinking about death, they believe life is more meaningful.

So was Tolstoy wrong in saying that death can undo and destroy the meaning of life? Well, it is always tricky when applying differences in group means (death participants to control group participants for instance) to individual people. The mean differences may or may not speak for any one participant in the study. In turn, perhaps Tolstoy is right for a small number of individuals. But, by and large, these studies show that death awareness heightens the perceived meaning of life.

The philosopher Heidegger once wrote that when we are aware of death, it transforms us from "existing" to "being." That is, we move from a mode of worrying about how things are, to just appreciating that things are.

King's studies support this. When reminded of death, people believe life is more meaningful.