Thoughts of death can be a positive

Thoughts of death can be a positive

By Liz Lockhart

Thoughts of dying can become obsessive and negative, however research suggests that thinking about death can be a good thing.  Being healthily aware that none of us is immortal can help us to prioritise both our values and our goals whilst having a beneficial effect on our physical health. 

Even subconscious thoughts about dying, such as a walk past a graveyard, can promote positive change and thoughts of helping others.

No previous study has explored the potential benefits of being aware of death.  In fact, past studies suggest that thoughts of death are dangerous and destructive.  It was though that they felled negative actions encompassing everything from greed and violence to prejudice.  These previous studies related to TMT (terror management theory) which works on the principal that we have cultural beliefs in order to cope with feelings of mortality.

‘This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviours has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,’ says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri.  Vail is the lead author of this new study, the findings of which can be found online in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

He added ‘There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviours that can minimise harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.’

Vail and colleagues set out to construct a new model for the way we contemplate our mortality.  They reviewed data from recent research on this subject and found many examples of experiments, from both the laboratory and in the field, that suggest positives to natural thoughts of death. 

Recent studies also suggest that thinking about death can promote better physical health, as when we are reminded of our mortality we may make better health choices.  We could be prompted to use sun block, cut down on the number of cigarettes we smoke, or to take more exercise.

Vail says that an important implication of this work is that we should ‘turn attention and research efforts towards 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.

He concludes ‘The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride towards living the good life.’

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