Yep, I Spend My Days Thinking About Death
Is my death obsession bad for me?
After taking time this week to let all of my friends, family, and acquaintances know about “The Benefits of Contemplating Death,” I’m having a bit of a vulnerability hangover. There’s nothing quite like telling everyone who you know (but haven’t talked to in ages) that you spend all your time thinking about death.
For everyone who doesn’t understand why anyone would ever spend time focused on mortality, I thought I would let you know what research says about contemplating death:
It turns out… the research isn’t that straight forward. A meta-analysis called, “When Death is Good for Life,” examines studies based on Terror Management Theory (TMT—I’ll explain that fun term in a bit). This analysis highlights findings that show thinking about death consciously (right… this… second…) increases the likelihood that people will adjust their goals to be more personally meaningful, instead of “status-oriented.” However, “When Death is Good for Life,” also notes that unconscious thought of death (what you’ll be doing tomorrow once you’ve forgotten you ever read this article) causes people to uphold their worldview (i.e. core beliefs about life and the world). This can lead to excessive nationalism and increased support for war. You still with me? Good. Let’s dive a little deeper.
Conscious Thought of Death
Because you’re reading this article, you are thinking about death right now. This means that you have the opportunity let go of superficial goals in favor of goals you view as inherently meaningful. Let’s try it. I want you to answer these questions:
What would you change in your life if you knew you would live until old age?
For only 10 more years?
For only one more year?
What about a week or even just a day?
What is really important to you.
Take a minute or two to contemplate your answers, maybe even write them down. These questions are based on a meditation called “Contemplating Our Priorities,” from the book “Being With Dying” by Roshi Joan Halifax. She describes the meditation as, “A way we can explore our priorities, given that death may come at anytime.” Did anything interesting come up for you?
In “When Death is Good for Life,” the authors discuss a couple of studies done in 2009 that demonstrate conscious thought of death leads people to devalue superficial, or rather, “extrinsically oriented,” goals—think $$ and fame for their own sake. In these studies, people were split into two groups. The control group was asked to answer questions about pain while the experimental group answered questions about death. Immediately after responding, half of the participants in both groups were asked to rate the importance of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Participants who answered questions about death and rated goals immediately, gave extrinsic goals low ratings. This means thinking about death causes people to place more value on intrinsic, internally generated goals—e.g. pursuing a self-determined interest or demonstrating care for loved ones.
If you, like me, sometimes get sucked into all of those things we “should” do (like take that practical job or get a degree in something that doesn’t inspire us) now we have a tool to realign ourselves. Thinking about death consciously and regularly could be the tool that allows us to value society’s goals less, and our intrinsic goals more.
However, there is the flip-side to these studies as well. The other half of the experimental group rated goals after a delay, when thoughts of death were no longer conscious. These participants, who were unconsciously thinking of mortality, gave excessively high ratings to extrinsic goals.
Unconscious Thought of Death
Terror Management Theory is a death anxiety theory that posits all of our actions can be traced to fear of death. As noted, studies based on this theory regularly conclude that unconscious thoughts about death cause people to uphold their worldview, reinforce their self-esteem, and place excessive weight on extrinsically generated goals. But there’s more. “When Death is Good for Life,” also cites studies that show unconscious death thoughts can also lead to increased nationalism, more punitive judgments, and a desire for symbolic immortality. This results in actions ranging from harmful to superficial—prejudice, support for war and terrorism, seeking fame, or trying to identify into a larger, immortal (potentially abstract) construct.
One such construct is justice. A study was discussed in an article by Julie Beck called, “What Good is Thinking About Death,” which demonstrates that thinking about death leads people to uphold their world-views. In this study, 22 judges were asked to answer questions before setting bail for alleged prostitutes. The control group was asked personality questions. The experimental group was asked two additional questions about death: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,” and, “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die, and once you are physically dead.” The judges who answered the death related questions set bail an average of nine times the standard bail of $50.
This study was also written about by three psychology professors in a book called “The Worm at the Core.” The authors sum up this case by saying, “The results showed that the judges who thought about their own mortality reacted by trying to do the right thing as prescribed by their culture. Accordingly, they upheld the law more vigorously than their colleagues who were not reminded of death.”
Additionally, Beck noted that since the original study, it has been shown that only judges who think prostitution is inherently immoral set the bail higher (which actually reinforces TMT’s belief that thinking about death will cause you to uphold your own worldview). A judge who doesn’t think prostitution is inherently immoral doesn’t raise the bail but is still upholding their own worldview. This points to something interesting: if your worldview is harmful, thinking about death will increase your belief in those harmful views. However, if your worldview is beneficial, then your positive beliefs will be bolstered instead.
Interestingly (and disturbingly, but not surprisingly), politicians often employ death rhetoric to take advantage of existential fear to manipulate voters into supporting their campaign. (Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of The Order of the Good Death, made a video about how death rhetoric helped Trump get elected.) The Ernest Becker Foundation, a organization that “seeks to advance understanding of how the unconscious denial of mortality profoundly influences human behavior,” and is based around the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Ernest Becker who wrote, ”The Denial of Death,” aim to counteract this manipulation through awareness. In their project, “Voter Manipulation,” the foundation states they, “hope that by peering into the most basic and primal motivations of the human experience, we can more readily recognize the manipulations in political messages and make the effort to reflect more thoughtfully on their language, tone and potential emotional impact.” I am not interested in being manipulated for nationalistic aims, so campaign rhetoric represents one more reason for me to address my death anxiety.
While the authors of “When Death is Good for Life” repeatedly acknowledge that confronting death causes people to uphold their worldview, harmful or beneficial, the authors’ also aimed to show positive aspects of typical responses to death. TMT based reactions to mortality salience (your own awareness of death) are all based on fear death. This fear (or avoidance of this fear) can, “Motivate people to enhance their physical health and prioritize growth-oriented goals; live up to positive standards and beliefs; build supportive relationships and encourage the development of peaceful, charitable communities; and foster open-minded and growth-oriented behaviors.”
However, these positive reactions to mortality salience still come from the belief that death is inherently terrifying. It’s sort of like saying, “If you’re afraid of death, here are benefits you can get.” But why would I want to live in fear? It’s the equivalent of being told, “You’d be in really great shape if the zombie apocalypse happened because you’d have to fight and run all the time.” To which I’m like, “I’ll take my slightly un-toned arms over zombies, thanks! Byeeee!”
Still, when I’m feeling anxious about my mortality, it is good to know that there are benefits I can get from fearing death. I can eat healthy food, exercise, and reduce my screen-time to try to fend off death for a little while longer. Exercising even has the fortunate byproduct of giving me endorphins, and who doesn’t want those? I can also choose a positive worldview to uphold. Why not try, say, “Empathy for all,” or, “[insert your own constructive worldview here: ______]”? If I want to nail down a legacy, I could choose beneficial ways to gain symbolic immortality—give back to my community, champion a worthwhile cause, or do something else I personally find meaningful, like make ginormous glitter sculptures.
This brings me to the next theory that addresses thinking about death, Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM— not to be confused with the popular candy created by Mars, Inc.). MMM proposes that we have a need for meaning, and death threatens our ability to obtain said meaning. In, “What Good is Thinking About Death,” Beck mentioned that Steven Heine, one of the founders of MMM, noted studies based on Meaning Maintenance Model have found that thinking about death doesn’t affect people more than watching a surreal movie. This seems like a pretty extreme parallel to draw when you realize the logical conclusion of MMM is feeling like death renders all of life meaningless—on second thought, there are some pretty trippy movies out there. I can see it.
Most people (me, hi!) can relate to the thought, “What’s the point, we’re all going to die?” And for some this thought leads to (an understandable) existential crisis — nihilistic despair. But nihilism can also be liberating. If nothing is inherently meaningful, then you are free to choose what is important to you. Here’s how life coach and motivational speaker Alison Cebulla, puts it, “Contemplating death and finding some sort of lightness in it is the only way to maintain sanity. It helps remind me that in the end everything is futile so we should have fun while we’re alive.” That’s not so bad, is it?
Of course, if nihilism isn’t your thing you can seek meaning in religious, spiritual, and/or scientific beliefs. Many creeds offer explanations of death that can be comforting if you resonate with them. If that sorta thing doesn’t suit you then you’re doomed to existential terror. JUST KIDDING. Here are a few perspectives you can use to make mortality more manageable:
CHOOSE TO LIVE IN LOVE
In the recent interview I did with social worker and speaker Lisa Greig, she says, “Life throws at you two choices: fear or love. Right? If we allow ourselves to constantly live in fear, then suddenly, we’d just become paralyzed by our mortality.” Every second we make a choice to focus on what enlivens us or what scares us. Practice choosing love as much as possible. It’ll get easier as you do it more.
FIND BEAUTY IN MYSTERY
Think of this quote spoken by Dumbledore, “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Or as J.J. Abrams says in his TED talk, “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” With the right perspective, the unknown can be inspiring, intriguing, and exciting instead of scary.
USE YOUR TIME WISELY (OR FUN-LY)
You can use death to remind yourself that time is limited, which will make you more likely to use it wisely. BONUS: You get to choose what wisely means for your life. We might as well maximize our time while we’re alive, right?
MAKE THE MOST OF LIMITED TIME
There’s more to the previous perspective than the common refrain, “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow,” which is good because let’s be honest, this advice actually isn’t all that practical. In, “What Good is Thinking About Death,” Beck articulates the issue with this idea perfectly:
While living like you’ll die tomorrow isn’t realistic advice, there is something to the idea that confronting death will make you more appreciative of the time you have.
In a study called “Death, Life, Scarcity, And Value” done by Laura A. King, Joshua A. Hicks, and Justin Abdelkhalik at the University of Missouri, Columbia, people were found to value life more after being confronted with death. This study examined the scarcity heuristic, which states that humans believe scarce things are valuable. These researchers propose that when death is used as a reminder that life is finite, we will value the time we have more. Their results backed this up.
Participants in the study were randomly assigned one of two word-search puzzles to complete. The control group found pain-related words in their puzzles, while the experimental group found words about death. After completing the puzzle, participants rated items related to meaning and satisfaction with life on a scale from 1 (no meaning or satisfaction) to 7 (very meaningful and satisfying). People exposed to words that were death related reported that they felt about 7.14% more satisfied with their lives than the control group. (P<.0001 if you’re interested in that sort of thing.)
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Is 7.14% really that much better?” I’m not sure. But this study does show that there is an increased positive regard towards ones own life after being confronted with death — or at least words about death. Tombstone, graveyard, mortality… there, I’ve just made you think your life is 7.14% better. You’re welcome.
I find it interesting that, as the authors’ say, “after exposure to reminders of death, evaluations of life were uniformly more positive,” because the people in this study weren’t prepped to think that they could get any benefits from thinking about death. They were just shown words like those listed above, and had a more positive outlook on their life. Imagine what the results could be if people were told that thinking about death could positively impact their lives, or if people were asked to reflect upon the impermanence of life everyday. Do you think satisfaction rates would be higher? I do. In Kelly McGonigal’s book, “The Upside of Stress,” she cites studies showing that people who are told stress will increase their performance on tests, actually have increased performance. It makes sense then, that people who are told thinking about death will increase their life satisfaction will actually feel more satisfied. This outcome seems especially probable since, as we just read, being exposed to death reminders does increase peoples’ positive regard toward life (even without a primer).
Anyone want to run a new death study with me?
The researchers of “Death, Life, Scarcity, And Value” also tested the value heuristic, which is the opposite of the scarcity heuristic—if something is valuable we’ll think it is rare. They found that psychologically and monetarily promoting the value of life, increases the likelihood of death thoughts. Funnily enough, this means that saying life is valuable makes people think of death, while acknowledging death helps people to appreciate life. As the researchers put it, “Reminding individuals of the reality of death may be more effective for promoting the value of life than directly reminding them of the value of life.”
So yes, reminding yourself that time is finite can help you to make the most of your life. Here’s how Caitlin Doughty puts it in her book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,”
However, since we live in a culture where death is taboo, thinking about mortality can be really scary—who wants to be terrified all the time right? Won’t we be less afraid if we keep avoiding death? Not really. It’s been shown that people feel less anxious about their fears when they are exposed to them repeatedly. This holds true for the fear of death as well. The academic paper, “Death Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach,” shows that thinking about death more (particularly through CBT) often actually makes mortality less daunting. Even if this wasn’t the case, there are many other reasons why it’s better to accept death instead of denying it.
What's Wrong with Death Denial?
Our society’s taboo on death has some unfortunate consequences, starting with complacency that comes from thinking we have plenty of time. Author Richie Norton summed up this idea in his essay, “How My Child’s Death Made Me Realize I Can’t Wait Another Second To Live My Dreams,” when he says,
Denying death can perpetuate our fear of mortality, and increase our complacency. But there are also practical/logistical repercussions to avoiding death:
YOU CAN GET SCAMMED
The corporate funeral industry can play off your fear of death and your grief to convince you to pay a fuck-ton of money to keep their body, if not literally alive forever, preserved for as long as possible. They will sell you on the idea that your loved one can enjoy “eternal slumber” in a gold, diamond-encrusted casket, lined with velvet in your Aunt’s favorite color — you catch my drift. Luckily if you address death ahead of time, you can plan what you will and won’t pay for. Also, there are a new wave of funeral directors who are super death positive and are working to help families instead of just toeing the corporate line. (Check out Undertaking LA if you’re interested in a death positive funeral home.)
YOU CAN GET MISTREATED MEDICALLY
If you don’t address death ahead of time, you and your loved ones risk being medically treated or revived in ways you don’t want to be. To prevent this you can visit sites like The Conversation Project to fill out paperwork such as advance health care directives and living wills. Make sure to share this information with next of kin. It’s also a good idea to write down what you want your funeral to be like, so close family members and friends don’t have to guess while in the midst of grieving. If you’re not sure how to start this process, Lisa Greig gives this great advice in the interview I did with her:
YOU CAN DIE IN THE WRONG PLACE
Studies show that 80% of people want to die at home, but only 20% of people actually do! Even though it’s not always possible to die where you want to die, letting people know your preference will increase the chance of dying at your preferred location.
YOU CAN CAUSE FAMILY MEMBERS UNNECESSARY DISTRESS
According to The Conversation Project, “60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is extremely important. 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes.” Without communicating your wishes to your loved ones, you put the burden of a lot of practical decisions on your family and friends — how the body should be dealt with, what the funeral will be like, who gets what possessions. By addressing death, you can let your family focus on their grief, instead of arguing over logistical issues. If you need help communicating end of life wishes, you can work with an end of life planner — Going with Grace is a great option.
I hear you saying, “Okay yeah so I get there are negative consequences of denying death, but is there anything good that comes from thinking about death?”
The Benefits of Contemplating Death
Thinking about death benefits me directly in many ways. It reminds me to:
Show my loved ones how much I care about them
Appreciate how amazing every moment is
Live authentically, right now
Put the worries of everyday life into perspective
Feel connected to everyone
Why am I driven to do these things? Because I believe this is what I will reflect on at the time of my death. Sometimes I imagine dying unexpectedly and there’s always a few items I run through in my head: “If I die now, at least I’ve loved deeply, at least I’ve traveled, at least I’ve pursued my dreams.” The five points listed above have helped me create a life where I am fulfilled. Meaning, if I die unexpectedly I feel like I will have experienced the aspects of life to me that I value the most.
While I’m alive, thinking about death helps put my fears into perspective. I’m still afraid of death. Not all the time, but there are still moments where I get twisted up with anxiety at the idea of no longer existing. Going through hospice volunteer training allowed me to openly discuss the topic that I feared. This discussion helped me to see beauty in death, which had only ever been horrific for me before. Seeing this fear in a new light made me wonder if my other fears were actually as scary as I thought. Occasionally something I fear really does seem 100% awful, but as someone who lives in a relatively safe location, these are usually things that I’m very unlikely to experience. Torture, for example. Other fears, though, really aren’t that bad. For instance, getting rejected from a job. While this would be disappointing, chances are there are other jobs out there. I would still have all my limbs, still be breathing, wouldn’t be in excruciating pain AND would still be capable of looking for other jobs. When I adopt this perspective, all of a sudden the fear of rejection stops holding me back quite as much. I might as well pursue what I want.
Additionally, when I’m on my deathbed I don’t think I’ll be particularly concerned about the annoying driver who cut me off, or the paper I didn’t finish writing by my intended deadline. Instead, I imagine I’ll feel satisfied knowing I lived life according to my values, instead of those imposed on me by society. I will want to know that I’ve resolved issues with loved ones, and make sure they know they were the best part of my life.
If I feel fear when I’m on my deathbed, I think the last point (feeling connected to everyone) is what will comfort me. Everyone dies, and many reports of death are very peaceful. I am comforted, even now, by remembering this. While alive, I can use death to feel connected to everyone because this shared experience is waiting for us all.
Thinking about death has improved my life profoundly, in many ways. Contemplating mortality has jolted me out of depression, decreased how much I care about external expectations, reminded me to show loved ones how much they mean to me, and helped me live according to my values.
Steve Jobs’ famous quote perfectly articulates the benefits of contemplating death: