In the Iliad, Homer said, “Light is the task when many share the toil.” Homer’s advice is sage and has stood the test of time. Death, however, is one of those rare toils that may not apply. Having the knowledge that everyone around you will die doesn’t make the fear of that toil light. Psychologists have been toiling away since the early 1980s trying to understand the reasons why platitudes like Homer’s don’t apply to the notion of mortality and the human understanding that life is finite.
In fact, over the past 30-plus years, hundreds of studies conducted by researchers all across the globe have found, using a variety of different methodologies, that (1) human awareness of death causes anxiety, and (2) this anxiety takes on different forms and leads to different behaviors and perceptions depending on whether we are currently experiencing death awareness in a conscious sense with full cognitive awareness versus a subconscious level.
While the complete scope of findings of this line of research is beyond the scope of this summary, a new study on the topic of death anxiety has tried to understand it better with respect to well-being. In a series of experimental lab studies, researchers assessed participants’ trait levels of various psychological buffers (i.e., meaning in life, self-worth, nostalgia proneness, and interdependent self-construal) and then experimentally induced mortality salience by asking each participant to ponder their future death and then immediately write down their personal thoughts. What they found was that individuals with higher levels of these positive psychological attributes didn’t report experiencing as much anxiety after being reminded of death as participants with lower levels of well-being. In short, one way to buffer anxiety regarding death may be to strengthen positive internal aspects of the living self.
With respect to older adults who have to face mortality reminders regularly, this study provides additional support for the multitude of ways in which a focus on well-being is of critical importance. And even though it may be a fool’s dream to think we can one day completely make the toil that is death light, it appears there are ways in which we may lighten it a bit.
Juhl J and Routledge C. Putting the terror in terror management theory: Evidence that the awareness of death does cause anxiety and undermine psychological well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science (2016); 25, 99–103.