Thinking about death can improve health and help people re-prioritize their goals and values, a new study revealed.
Researchers said that even subconscious thoughts about death, like walking by a cemetery, could prompt people to make positive changes and help others.
Psychologists, relating to the terror management theory, which suggests that people follow certain cultural beliefs to manage feeling of mortality, have previously suggested that thinking about death is destructive and can motivate prejudice, greed and violence.
Researchers from the latest study constructed a new model for how people think about death by analyzing previous studies that found positive effects on attitudes and behaviors when people were exposed to natural reminders about mortality.
A 2008 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin observed participants who were either in a cemetery, a block away from the cemetery, out of sight of the cemetery and found that just being physically near a cemetery affected how likely people were willing to help a stranger.
"When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery," lead author of the new study Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri said in a statement. "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."
A 2010 study found that, German researcher found that an increased mortality awareness motivated participants to exhibit sustainable, pro-environmental behaviors.
Other studies found that thinking about death can also promote better health choices, like using more sunscreen, smoking less, becoming more active and even performing breast self-exams.
Vail suggested that psychologists "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."
“The conscious awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health and reprioritize intrinsically meaningful goals and values, and non-conscious death awareness can move people to live up to positive standards and beliefs, such as environmental concern or compassion; build positive relationships with friends, family, and loved ones; encourage helpful community involvement; support peaceful intergroup coexistence; and can foster certain self-enriching behaviors, such as creative expression or the exploration of novelty,” the authors concluded.