What Good is Thinking About Death?

We’re all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.

By Julie Beck | Originally posted at The Atlantic

In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it’s haunting nonetheless.

The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.

Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.

“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”

He’s a little late to the party. Stoicism as a school of philosophy rose to prominence in the 3rd century B.C. in Greece, then migrated to the Roman Empire, and hung around there through the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 A.D. “That Stoicism has seen better days is obvious,” Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University, writes in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. He stumbled across the philosophy when researching a book on Zen Buddhism—“I thought I wanted to be a Zen Buddhist,” he says, “but Stoicism just had a much more rational approach.”

Though the word “stoic” in modern parlance is associated with a lack of feeling, in his book, Irvine argues that the philosophy offers a recipe for happiness, in part by thinking about bad things that might happen to you. The big one, obviously, is death—both yours and that of people you love.

“We can do it on a daily basis, simply by imagining how things can be worse than they are,” he says. “Then when they aren’t that way, isn’t that just wonderful? Isn’t it simply wonderful that I get another day to get this right?”

For Irvine and the Stoics, thoughts of death inspire gratitude. For many others, thinking about The End inspires fear or anxiety. In fact, the latter may be the natural human condition.

* * *

“We are different from other animals in that we are uniquely aware of our own mortality,” says Ken Vail, an assistant professor of psychology at Cleveland State University. “Certainly other animals recognize they can die—if a cheetah chases an impala, or chases us, both us and the impala are going to run away. We recognize that as an immediate threat of mortality. But the impala doesn’t sit in the safety of its office aware of the fact that it will eventually die. And we do.”
This is the price we pay for the nice things consciousness has given us—self-reflection, art, engineering, long-term planning, cooking our food and adding spices to it instead of just chomping raw meat straight off the bones of another animal, etc. We’re all going to die and we all know it.

But we’re not always actively thinking about it. When people are reminded of death, they employ a variety of strategies to cope—not all of which are as well-adjusted as Stoic gratitude. That many kinds of human behavior stem from a fear of death is the basis of one of the most prominent theories in modern social psychology—terror-management theory.

It’s the hope of symbolic immortality that calms the frightened rabbits of death-fearing hearts—the idea that people are a part of something that will last longer than they do.
Terror-management theory exists because one day, some 30-odd years ago, Sheldon Solomon was perusing the library at Skidmore College, where he’s a professor of psychology, and he happened to pick up The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker. “This is nothing to be proud of, but the cover is white with green splotches on it, and I was like ‘Ooh, what an interesting color,’” Solomon says. “Then I liked that it was a short book with big print. Again, nothing to be proud of, but true. And that’s why I reached for it.”

Once he opened the book, though, Solomon was taken by its central question—Why do people do what they do?—and how it was presented, without “turgid academic jargon,” he says. Becker offered an answer to that question: People do a lot of the things that they do to quell their fear of death. So Solomon and two of his friends from grad school, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, set out to test that idea empirically.

* * *

The only antidote to death is immortality. And so, terror-management theory holds, when faced with the idea of death, people turn to things they believe will give them immortality, literal or otherwise. The hope of true immortality can be found in religion’s promises of heaven or reincarnation, or in some of science’s more dubious life-extension promises (Just freeze your dead body! They’ll wake it up later!).

More often though, it’s the hope of symbolic immortality that calms the frightened rabbits of death-fearing hearts—the idea that people are a part of something that will last longer than they do. Their culture, their country, their family, their work. When thinking of death, people cling more intensely to the institutions they’re a part of, and the worldviews they hold.

What that actually means in terms of behavior, is trickier. The research shows that what people do when they’re feeling aware of their mortality depends on the person, the situation she’s in, and whether she’s focusing on death or it’s just in the back of her mind. (The TMT literature, which details a wide range of effects, is now fairly substantial. A 2010 metareview found 238 TMT studies, and this page on the University of Missouri website lists nearly 600, though it doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2012).

When death is in the front of your mind—when you pass by a cemetery, when someone you know is sick (or when, in a lab, a researcher has just asked you about it)—the tendency, according to TMT, is to want to push those thoughts away. You might suppress the thoughts, distract yourself with something else, or comfort yourself with the idea that your death is a long way away, and anyway, you’re definitely going to go to the gym tomorrow.
A couple of studies have shown that conscious thoughts of death do increase health intentions, for exercise and medical screenings, though whether people actually follow through on those intentions is unclear. Promising yourself you’ll eat better may just be a strategy to get death off your mind.

When death is on people’s conscious minds, “they can wield logic to deal with it,” Vail says. “This would be similar to your mom saying, ‘Put on your seatbelt, you don’t want to die.’ So you think about that and recognize, yes, she’s right, you don’t want to bite it on the way to the grocery store, so you put on your seatbelt.”

According to Solomon, even young children use versions of these same strategies. His new book, written with Greenberg and Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, cites the story of 5-year-old Richard, from a series of interviews the psychologist Sylvia Anthony conducted in the 60s and 70s:

“He swam up and down in his bath [and] he played with the possibility of never dying: ‘I don’t want to be dead, ever; I don’t want to die.’ … After his mother told 5-year-old Richard that he wouldn’t die for a long time, the little boy smiled and said, ‘That’s all right. I’ve been worried, and now I can get happy.’ Then he said he would like to dream about ‘going shopping and buying things.’”
Classic distraction move, Richard. Though at times, our own coping mechanisms may not be much more sophisticated. “Americans are arguably the best in the world at burying existential anxieties under a mound of French fries and a trip to Walmart to save a nickel on a lemon and a flamethrower,” Solomon says.
But shopping excursions can only distract you so much. Even once you stop actively thinking about it, death is still prominent in your nonconscious mind. “One metaphor is the file drawer,” Vail says. “You pull out a file and read it, then you get distracted, now you’re thinking about dinner. You put [the file] back in the drawer, you pull out dinner, now you’re looking at dinner, but whatever you were thinking about previously is now on the top of the file. It’s the closest thing to your conscious awareness.”

This is when, the research shows, people’s attitudes and behaviors are most affected—when you’ve recently been reminded of death, but it’s moved to the back of your mind.

Unfortunately, a lot of what death brings out when it’s sitting at the top of the file drawer is not humanity’s most sterling qualities. If people feel motivated to uphold their own cultures and worldviews in the face of death, it stands to reason that they might be less friendly toward other worldviews and the people who hold them.

“Americans are the best in the world at burying existential anxieties under a mound of French fries and a trip to Walmart to save a nickel on a lemon and a flamethrower.”
The very first terror-management study involved “22 municipal-court judges in Tucson, Arizona,” according to The Worm at the Core. The judges were tasked with setting bail for alleged prostitutes, but first they were asked to take a survey. Some of them just answered personality questions, but some were also asked two 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 standard bail at the time was $50, set by judges who didn’t take the survey. The ones who did take the survey set the bail an average of nine times higher.
“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,” the book reads. “Accordingly, they upheld the law more vigorously than their colleagues who were not reminded of death.”

But, Solomon says, the researchers later repeated that study with students, and found that only those who thought prostitution was “morally reprehensible” opted to set a harsher bail. The logic goes that those students wanted to uphold their values, and punish transgressors. Since then, more studies have shown this tendency: When mortality’s on their minds, people prefer others in their (cultural/racial/national/religious) group to those outside it. This dynamic has manifested in silly ways—in one study liberals were more likely to make conservatives eat a gross hot sauce after a death reminder and vice versa—and in more serious ones—reminders of mortality have been shown to make people more likely to stereotype others.

While wanting to promote your own worldviews can mean putting others’ down, that isn’t the only way people seek to feel like part of something greater than themselves—searching for that symbolic immortality. Looming mortality can also lead people to help others, donate to charity, and want to invest in caring families and relationships. (And studies have backed up that people do these things when reminded of death.)
These reactions have also been observed outside the lab, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when death was likely top of mind for many Americans for quite a while. Comparisons of survey answers before and two months after 9/11 found increases in kindness, love, hope, spirituality, gratitude, leadership, and teamwork, which persisted (though to a slightly lesser degree) 10 months after the attacks. But Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski point out in their book that there was also a lot of fear and derogation by Americans of the “other” after 9/11, specifically Muslim and Arab others.

“It’s not the case that awareness of mortality and the ensuing terror-management process is an inherently negative one that causes prejudice and closed-mindedness and hostility but instead it appears to be simply rather a neutral process,” Vail says. “It’s one that motivates people to indiscriminately uphold and defend their cultural worldviews.”

How you manage your terror, then, depends on what’s already important to you—and that’s what you’ll turn to when confronted with mortality. In one study, empathetic people were more likely to forgive transgressions after a death reminder; in another, fundamentalist religious people were more compassionate after thinking of their own mortality—but only when compassionate values were framed in a religious context, such as excerpts from the Bible or Koran.

* * *

Terror-management theory contends that there’s something different about our fear of death, compared to other fears. Every other threat is survivable, after all. And in research, thinking about death has produced just as strong of an effect whether the alternative was something neutral, or another threat like rejection or pain. So a fear of death is not just like a fear of rejection, except more.

Except Steven Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, doesn’t think death is necessarily such a unique threat. In 2006, he and fellow researchers Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs developed the Meaning Maintenance Model, which says yes, thinking about death can inspire these attitudes and behaviors, but for a different reason. Death, according to their theory, is a threat to the way we understand the world, similar to uncertainty, being rejected by a friend, or even—Heine’s example—finding a red queen of spades in a deck of cards. All these things interrupt what Heine calls “meaning frameworks—understandings of how the world works. When we think about the fact that we’re going to die, it calls all of those assumptions into question. All these things I’m trying to do, I won’t be able to succeed, my relationships will be severed, the way I think I fit into the world, ultimately I no longer will. This is bothersome.”

But perhaps not more bothersome than other threats to meaning. Heine says Meaning Maintenance Model studies have found that thinking about death does not have a noticeably larger effect on people’s attitudes and behaviors than, say, watching a surreal movie. A metareview of TMT studies also notes that the effects of thinking about death are less significant when compared with thinking about something else that threatens someone’s sense of meaning.
Thoughts of death still lead people to uphold their worldviews according to this theory, but it’s because, when faced with an idea as confounding as one’s own mortality, people turn to the other things in their lives that still make sense to them. While the two theories have a lot in common, Heine says MMM can explain one thing that TMT cannot: suicide.

“TMT would argue that while we want to have a sense of meaning as a way of keeping away thoughts of death, one of the key motivators of suicide is feeling that your life isn’t very meaningful, wanting death when you feel like you don’t have sufficient meaning in your life,” he says.

The thing that makes death different, Heine says, is that it’s not solvable. With other meaning threats, you can try to fix the problem, or adjust your worldview to accommodate the new information. “The fact that we’re going to die is a problem that we can never fully resolve throughout our lives,” he says.

But maybe that’s for the best.

* * *

“I know we’re supposed to be super afraid of death. But it’s good, isn’t it?” asks Laura King, curator’s professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “If life never ended, think about it, right? Isn’t that like every vampire story or sci-fi movie? If you live too long, after a while, you just lose it. Life no longer has any meaning, because it’s commonplace.”

King did a study in 2009 that offers an alternative, economical perspective on death and meaning. She showed that after reminders of death, people valued life more highly—and conversely, reading a passage that placed a high monetary value on the human body increased people’s number of death thoughts. This is the scarcity principle, plain and simple—the less you have of something, the more you value it.
But “most of us don’t live like we’re aware that life is a finite commodity,” King says. She describes an exercise she has her students do, in which they write down their life goals, and then write what they’d do if they only had three weeks to live. “Then you say, ‘Why aren’t you doing those things?’ They say, ‘Get real, hello, we have a future to plan for.’”

“Everybody always says life is too short, but it’s really long. It’s really, really long.”
“Live every day as though it’s your last” is nice but profoundly unhelpful advice, when you know that today is probably not your last day. I’m not sure what I’d do if I was going to die tomorrow—round up all my loved ones and fly them to Paris? Or maybe just throw them a really nice dinner party, the kind where everyone ends up sprawled out on couches, overstuffed and warm from the wine.

Either way, I can’t do that today. I have to go to work.

“Everybody always says life is too short,” King says, “but it’s really long. It’s really, really long.”

Once people’s days truly are numbered, their priorities do seem to shift. According to research done on socioemotional selectivity theory, older people are more present-oriented than younger people, and are more selective in who they spend time with, sticking mostly with family and old, close friends. Other studies have shown them to also be more forgiving, and to care more for others, and less about enhancing themselves.
This all fits in well with Irvine’s Stoic philosophy. Rather than pulling curtains over the darkness on the other side of the window, you stare straight into it, so when you turn away you’re thankful for the light.

Irvine gives the mundane example of buying a lawn mower. “As I’m doing it, I have the realization that this is conceivably the last lawn mower I will ever buy,” he says. “I don’t like mowing the lawn, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve only got X number of times it’s going to happen. Some day, this moment, right now, is going to count as the good old days.”

* * *

Unfortunately, Western culture isn’t exactly death-friendly. Death is kept largely out of sight, out of mind, the details left to hospitals and funeral parlors. Though most Americans say they want to die at home, few actually do—only about 25 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most other people die in hospitals, nursing homes, or other facilities.

This is why, in 2011, the mortician Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, a self-described “group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for inevitable mortality.” She’s also written a book about working in a crematory, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and hosts the “Ask a Mortician” webseries.

“Death doesn’t go away just because we hide it,” Doughty wrote to me in an email. “Hiding life’s truths doesn’t mean they disappear. It means they are forced into darker parts of our consciousness … Death is the most natural thing in the world, and treating it as deviant isn’t doing our culture any favors … We don’t control nature. We aren’t higher-ranking than nature.”

This is terror management writ large, a culture that pushes death away as best it can. Even though, ultimately, it can’t.

More people are coming around to Doughty’s way of thinking. “Death salons” and “death cafes,” where people gather to talk about their mortality have sprung up across the U.S., and many doctors, like the Being Mortal author Atul Gawande, are working to advance the conversation around end-of-life care, getting patients involved in planning for their deaths.

But the research shows the effects of thinking about death aren’t all grace and gratitude —so would bringing death out into the open ultimately help or hurt humanity?

“At first, thinking about death regularly made me move up and down and way up and way down the emotional spectrum,” Doughty writes. “But over time thinking about death moves you closer to magnanimity. You realize that you will have to give your body, your atoms and molecules, back to the universe when you’re done with them.”

She also points out that TMT studies are isolated instances, and don’t look at what happens when people think about death regularly, over time.

Maybe the key, then, is being deliberate. Not letting thoughts of death sneak up on you, but actively engaging with them, even if it’s hard. In one 2010 study, people who were more mindful were less defensive of their worldviews after being reminded of death, suggesting that “mindfulness can potentially disrupt some of these kinds of processes that go into terror management,” says Vail, the Cleveland State University psychologist.

Solomon, too, is hopeful. “I like to think there comes a moment where sustained efforts to come to terms with death pay off.” Vail suggests that freeing oneself from the psychological reactions to death might get rid of the good effects along with the bad, but Solomon’s willing to take the trade. “If you look at the problems that currently befall humanity—we can’t get along with each other, we’re pissing on the environment, [there’s] rampant economic instability by virtue of mindless conspicuous consumption—they’re all malignant manifestations of death anxiety running amok.”

It’s probably not possible to erase all fear of death—animals have a drive to survive, and we are animals, even with all that consciousness. Even if being mindful about death means getting rid of the good along with the bad consequences of death anxiety, people can be generous and love each other without being scared into it.

“Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him,” E.M. Forster once wrote. I don’t know if there’s really any salvation, but if we accept death, maybe we can just live.