A new analysis says that awareness of mortality is a good thing as it can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values.
Even a passing nod with mortality, such as walking by a cemetery, could prompt positive changes, unlike past research which suggests such thoughts are destructive and dangerous, fuelling prejudice, greed or violence.
Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death, people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise, the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review reported.
A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams, when women were exposed to information that linked the behaviour to self-empowerment.
Such studies bearing on 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.
"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 minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being," said Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, who led the study.
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, according to a university statement.
For example, Vail refers to an earlier study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger.
Researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery.
Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.
"When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40 percent greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery," Vail said.