Weird as it may sound, thinking about death doesn’t make us all sad and negative. After reviewing a dozen studies, researchers from the University of Missouri found that it’s quite the opposite. They found that thinking about your death/mortality leads to decreased militaristic attitudes, better health decisions, increased altruism and helpfulness, and reduced divorce rates.
“According to terror management theory, people deal with their awareness of mortality by upholding cultural beliefs and seeking to become part of something larger and more enduring than themselves, such as nations or religions,” said Jamie Arndt, study co-author and professor of psychological sciences. “Depending on how that manifests itself, positive outcomes can be the result.”
After real catastrophes, such as the 9/11 WTC attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing, people’s increased sense of fear and awareness of death had positive and negative effects.
“Both the news media and researchers tended to focus on the negative reaction to these acts of terrorism, such as violence and discrimination against Muslims, but studies also found that people expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership after 9/11.” said Ken Vail, lead author and psychology doctoral student. “In another example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, divorce rates went down in surrounding counties. After some stimuli escalates one’s awareness of death, the positive reaction is to try to reaffirm that the world has positive aspects as well.”
People are influenced to make positive choices after their awareness of death is increased. Studies found that conscious thoughts of death can inspire intentions to exercise more, reduce smoking and increase using sunscreen. In one experiment, passers-by who had recently overheard conversations mentioning the value of helping were more likely to help strangers if they were walking within sight of cemeteries.