Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies. Even non-conscious thinking about death – say walking by a cemetery – could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.
Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored 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,” says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month. “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.”
In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.