How thinking about death changes us

Source: BBC News

By Rachel Nuwer

You and everyone you’ve ever known will someday die. According to some psychologists, this uncomfortable truth constantly lurks in the back of our minds and ultimately drives everything we do, from choosing to attend church, eat vegetables and go to the gym to motivating us to have children, write books and create companies.

For healthy people, death usually lurks in the back of our minds, exerting its influence on a subconscious level. “Most of the time, we go through our days unaware, not thinking of our mortality,” says Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician and ethicist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Philadelphia. “We cope by focusing on the things more directly in front of us.”


What would happen, though, if the ambiguity surrounding our own demise were taken away? What if we all suddenly were told the exact date and means of our deaths? While this is, of course, impossible, careful consideration of this hypothetical scenario can shed light on our motivations as individuals and societies – and hint at how to best spend our limited time on this Earth.

First, let’s establish what we know about how death shapes behaviour in the real world. In the 1980s, psychologists became interested in how we deal with the potentially overwhelming anxiety and dread that come with the realisation that we are nothing more than “breathing, defecating, self-conscious pieces of meat that can die at any time”, as Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at New York’s Skidmore College, puts it.

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