Pondering over death can in fact be positive as an awareness of mortality can progress physical health and help in re-prioritising one's goals and values, reveals a new study.
According to a new analysis of recent scientific studies, even non-conscious thinking about death like walking by a cemetery could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.
Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fuelling 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 behaviours has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction," Kenneth Vail, lead author of the study from the University of Missouri, said.
"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," Vail said.
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.
For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger.
"Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviours," Vail said.
The 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.
"Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism," Vail said.
Thinking about death can also promote better health. 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.
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.
The study has been published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review.