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Awareness of death can improve your health

Apr 20th, 2012
Staff Writer

Photo credit: wikimedia commonsDeath is a topic most people like to avoid. But thinking about death can actually help people set healthy priorities, researchers say.

In a study published Thursday, University of Missouri social scientists observed people walking through a cemetery or about one block from a cemetery that was out of sight. The researchers staged an experiment at each site in which actors at each location held a conversation about the value of helping others or about a random topic. One actor then dropped her notebook. Researchers monitored how many passersby helped her by picking up the notebook.

When people overheard the conversation about helping others, people in the cemetery were 40% more likely to help a stranger compared to people who observed the same scene one block away.

Awareness of mortality, even if it is subconscious – such as standing in a cemetery – appears to motivate people to be more tolerant, egalitarian, compassionate and empathetic, said the lead author of the study, Kenneth Vail, of the University of Missouri. 

Other studies have suggested that thinking about death is destructive. But thoughts of one's mortality can be beneficial, Vail said.

"There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being," he said.

Thinking about death can also promote better health, the authors wrote. 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.

People should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people's lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife," they wrote. "The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life."

The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review.