Are We Happier Facing Death?

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Russell Underwood / Corbis

Here's one for the annals of counterintuitive findings: When asked to contemplate the occasion of their own demise, people become happier than usual, instead of sadder, according to a new study in the November issue of Psychological Science. Researchers say it's a kind of psychological immune response — faced with thoughts of our own death, our brains automatically cope with the conscious feelings of distress by nonconsciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism that scientists theorize helps protect us from permanent depression or paralyzing despair.

It might explain the shift toward more positive emotions and thought processes as people age and approach death, and the preternaturally positive outlook that some terminally ill patients seem to muster. Though it looks a lot like old-fashioned denial, that's not the case, says lead author Nathan DeWall. It's not that "'I know I'm going to die, but I just con myself into thinking I'm not.' I don't think that's what's going on here," says DeWall. "I think what's happening is that people are really unaware of [their own resilience]" — whereas, with denying behavior, people usually know they're engaging in it — "so, when people are exposed to serious threats, such as when they consider their own death, which is about as serious as it gets, people are coping, but they're completely unaware of it."

DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University tested that theory — the so-called "terror management theory" — in a series of experiments involving 432 undergraduate volunteers. About half of the students were asked to contemplate dying and being dead, and to write short essays describing what they imagined happening to them as they physically died. The other half of the group was asked to think and write about dental pain — decidedly unpleasant, but not quite as threatening. The researchers then set about evaluating the volunteers' emotions: First, the students were given standard psychological questionnaires designed to measure explicit affect and mood. Then they were given assessments of nonconscious mood: in word tests, volunteers were asked to complete fragments such as jo_ or ang_ _ with letters of their choice. Some word stems were intended to prompt either neutral or emotionally positive responses, such as jog or joy; others could be filled in neutrally or negatively — angle versus angry. In a separate word test, students paired a target word such as mouth with its best match: cheek, which is similar in meaning, or smile, which is similar in positive emotional content.

Students in the death-and-dying group, it turns out, had all gone to their happy place — at least in their unconscious. There was no difference in scores between the groups on the explicit tests of emotion and affect. But in the implicit tests of nonconscious emotion — the wordplay — researchers found that the students who were preoccupied with death tended to generate significantly more positive-emotion words and word matches than the dental-pain group. DeWall thinks this mental coping response kicks in immediately when confronted with a serious psychological threat. In subsequent research, he has analyzed the content of the volunteers' death essays and found that they're sprinkled with positive words. "When you ask people, 'Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,'" says DeWall, "people will report fear and contempt, but also happiness that 'I'm going to see my grandmother' and joy that 'I'm going to be with God.'"

If the premise of DeWall's study seems too contrived to apply to the real world, consider this: While the number of people actually confronted with death at any given time is extremely small, the number who are going to die at some point is 100%, says Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, from whose research the term "psychological immune response" springs. "We are all walking around, unlike every other animal, thinking, 'Oh, my God, eventually this all ends,'" says Gilbert. "This creates a state of existential dread. This knowledge pervades our everyday existence." The point of the current study, therefore, is that our psychological immune system doesn't respond to imminent death, but to the fact of death — to the thought that death is inexorable.

In his current research, DeWall is finding that other threats, such as that of social rejection, elicit a similar psychological immune response — except, intriguingly, in depressed people — and he thinks that it's a mechanism that healthy people are probably employing constantly, as a way of fending off a lifetime of serious misfortunes: not just the looming specter of death, but also the fact that you're not going to get that promotion, or that your spouse is cheating on you, or that your kid is on drugs. "It's very difficult to keep people in bad moods, and I think this is one of the reasons why," says DeWall. "Let's say we didn't have this. I think we would have a lot more difficulty coping with failure and threats and our own mortality. It would be difficult for us to find solutions. We would be thinking about how bad we were feeling all the time."

So, if a healthy psychological immune system is a marker of well-being, then perhaps a lack of natural coping abilities signals poor mental health. But of course it's not as simple as all that. A long-term bad mood isn't necessarily a sign of maladjustment. Sometimes, it's just called adolescence.