It may sound counter-intuitive, but thinking about death can actually be a life-affirming experience that can boost your health.
That’s the chief finding of a new analysis of studies that shows a deeper awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help people prioritize goals and values. What’s more, even non-focused awareness of death – gained, for instance, by walking by a cemetery – can prompt positive changes in life.
The findings conflict with past research that has suggested thinking about death is destructive and dangerous to health. But such studies have focused on what psychologists call “terror management theory” (TMT) and not the potential benefits of death awareness.
"This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction," said Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. "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 colleagues review recent studies on the topic and found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.
For example, one 2008 study found people who were physically near a cemetery were more willing to help a stranger. Others have found people reminded of death opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.
"The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life," the researchers concluded.
Vail added: “(We should) turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people's lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife."