Death is one of those topics of conversation that really illustrates the starkly contrasting and fundamentally different ways of approaching life. Some people (including me) can’t seem to get it off their minds, off the tip of their tongue. It is the backdrop of every scene of our lives, every decision we make is driven by the engine of death-related thoughts. We perpetually try to solve the puzzle of how to die peacefully, how to die painlessly and how to deal with grief when it comes, if it hasn’t already. Others suppress it, avoiding thinking and talking about it at basically all costs, understandably, not wanting to engage in painful, morbid topics of discussion.
Recently, I have become obsessively interested in what all of this might mean, namely, what the meaning behind these differing strategies toward death-related thoughts might be. I kept noticing how differently people react to death being brought up in conversation. I found it equally disturbing as I did interesting how bringing up death in a discussion could lead one person to become so viscerally angry with me for ‘ruining the vibe’ while with another person, it can generate profound and engaging conversations. What is the fundamental difference between these two kinds of people? How does it correspond with other areas of life?
As part of a research project at university, I chose to study this exact topic, and I would like to share my findings with you here. Of course, if you are the kind of person that feels your skin crawl when you hear the word ‘death’, you may have already stopped reading. If you haven’t, however, I would urge you to try to bear it until the end of this article, as you might well find something useful in it.
The findings from my research support the hypothesis that mindful processing, rather than suppression of death-related thoughts, results in better life outcomes. Results from studies I have reviewed support this finding, within the framework of an old and broadly cited theory of death anxiety, Terror Management Theory.
Terror Management Theory
This theory posits that we humans have an underlying awareness of our own mortality, which serves as a source of devastating anxiety that is largely repressed and combatted against. To buffer against this anxiety or terror, we place great importance on our cultural worldview and self-esteem, in a sort of attempt to achieve immortality through legacy.
The meaning, structure, and sense of belonging we achieve by acting and thinking in such ways that boost our self-esteem, front as a sort of protective shield against the truthful notion of our own mortality. I have come across several professors who seem to find this theory rather distasteful, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand why.
Terror management theory has been supported in over 400 empirical studies, across more than 20 countries. To me, this vast range of support is suggestive that this strategy towards mortality salience (death awareness) is in some sense universal, given that it is relatively easy to detect in individuals cross-culturally. However, is it the optimal approach to thoughts of death?
The Problem with Disregarding Death
Science is often regarded as the most effective method of uncovering the truth. Whether that truth is of a pleasant or unpleasant nature is irrelevant in the wake of objectivity. In another sense, there is nothing truer than the fact that we are mortal, yet many of us actually use a certain level of our cognitive computational power to suppress this harrowing fact of life, the fact of death.
We differ from all other species with regards to our awareness of our inevitable death. It is not obvious what the evolutionary purpose of this awareness might be (if there even is one) but what is clear is that the system of death-related thought suppression that is in place in many of us with regards to this topic, is not the optimal strategy that could be employed. What is clear is that there are some real consequences involved in abiding by the normative taboo in discussing and reflecting upon death.
One heart-breaking example of the dire consequences of this taboo comes from a story of a 94-year-old man, in the intensive care unit in John Hopkins hospital, who has become too frail to speak for himself. His daughter, when confronted by the case doctor and asked, ‘Did you ever plan for what should be done should a situation like this arise?’, responded with disgust and shock at the doctor’s question saying ‘of course not!’ in an offended tone.
This is just one real-life example of the statistic that only 1 in 200 people have a plan set in place for their family after they die, and only 1 in 500 people have a plan in place for if they become too frail to represent themselves (which is what will happen to most of us).
Given that these are obviously not ideal circumstances (to be so unprepared), there seems to be some very consequential dissonance between outcomes we would rather have in life and the normative model we use. For all its faults and follies, religion presented one positive thing for humans, in that its promotion of an afterlife buffered us against death anxiety. Since the western departure from religion during the scientific revolution, what have we done to replace this buffer?
If indeed Terror Management Theory is an accurate description, it would suggest that we have simply opted to zoom in to our self-esteem, dedicating our mental faculties to becoming evermore egocentric. This theory becomes far easier to swallow when we simply look around to see how people behave on social media, platforms for people to write their autobiographical story, in which the immortal legacy of their characters and work surpass our physical mortality in importance.
The Dual Process Model of Terror Management
So, terror management theory says that we suppress thoughts of death and buffer against death anxiety using self-esteem. You might be wondering exactly how that works in real-time. The dual-process model of terror management takes a closer look at the dynamics of how that works.
This model basically says that we use two defence types when faced with mortality salience cues. The first defence type, known as proximal (immediate) defences, get activated immediately after being exposed to a ‘mortality salience cue’. A mortality salience cue is just some external stimulus that prompts awareness of death, a picture of a coffin. for example.
The common proximal defence that people used in the studies that tested this model were people’s intention to engage in health behaviours. In other words, when people were faced with death cues, they combatted the anxiety by promising themselves to live healthier lives by say, quitting smoking, exercising more or eating a healthier diet. The end goal of proximal defences is to get these death-related thoughts out of conscious awareness, as fast and effectively as possible.
When this happens, the second defence type becomes active, the distal defence (measured after a delay period). Distal defences come into play when death thoughts are outside the scope of focal attention, but still ‘accessible’. These defences focus on promoting the image of the symbolic self, promoting self-esteem. Interestingly, and to further support terror management theory as a whole, people with lower self-esteem reported higher levels of death anxiety when measured after this delay period.
The Role of Mindfulness in Death Anxiety
Mindfulness is the backbone of eastern philosophy, it has roots in all schools of Buddhism, Yoga and Taoism. It can be defined as the objective awareness of the present moment. The psychological and physical health benefits of mindfulness and meditation are not anything new. It has been occupying the attention of many psychological researchers since its stance to popularity in recent years. It has been studied both in basic and clinical settings.
Due to the nature of this concept, it has been difficult to study it as a psychological construct. Some have more of a propensity toward mindfulness than others, yet it can also be effectively learned through the practice of meditation. A recent study came up with a new measure of trait mindfulness, referred to as ‘end-state mindfulness’. This is the tendency of an individual to see things as they are in the moment, without attaching subjective judgments to perceptual experiences.
This ‘end state mindfulness’ was found, in the same study, to be negatively correlated with rumination, thought suppression and neuroticism. It was also found to moderate the negative effect usually associated with the exposure of mortality salience cues.
Mindfulness can be thought of as an exemplar of the experiential mode of conscious processing (Teasdale*, 1999), which seems to be a formidably opposing force to terror management, which aims to suppress.
In line with this conceptualization of mindfulness, a series of experiments and studies examined whether trait mindfulness reduced the defensive responses to death awareness cues. It turns out it does. Results from these studies showed the positive relationship between mindfulness and self-esteem, the usual buffer against thoughts of death. But rather than buffering, it was shown that mindfulness predicted reduced suppression of death, and those who scored higher on trait mindfulness, spent longer when doing a writing exercise about their own death. They were more willing to sit down and consciously process thoughts of dying.
This series of seven studies were the first to examine the role of mindfulness in terror management theory, and collectively they show that mindfulness reduces the engagement in both proximal and distal defences. Rather they promote the unbiased, conscious processing of death. Mindfulness has been shown to increase our empathy and concern for others and promote the endorsement of intrinsic (personal growth and development), rather than extrinsic (wealth and status) goals.
This becomes very interesting when we look at the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientation and subjective feeling of life satisfaction in the face of death awareness. One recent study found that those with more extrinsic goal orientations were more likely to process these cues as unpleasant threats and those with more intrinsic goal orientations were more likely to experience them as meaningful reflective experiences. This suggests that mindfulness is a contrasting strategy to terror management strategy that results in a qualitatively better attitude toward both life and death.
So, on one end of the spectrum, you have people that suppress thoughts of dying, they rely on the quality of their self-esteem to combat death anxiety. This is unfortunate for people will less self-esteem because they are likely to experience greater levels of death-related anxiety. On the other end of the spectrum, you have mindful people, who process thoughts of dying consciously and deliberately. They are not only more empathic people but they also (because of having intrinsic goal orientations) report higher levels of life satisfaction. People who process death reflectively are also more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour in the workplace compared to their anxious counterparts, who withdraw and engage in self-protective behaviours.
The thing is, we are all going to die, and so is everyone we know. Many of them will go before us and we will be left to deal with the grief of their absence. We have every right to be anxious about death, it’s the worst possible thing, that will definitely happen to all of us. Although, just because it’s painful to think about, it doesn’t mean that we should just avoid thinking about it all together. As illustrated in the above example of the 94-year-old man, never having a conversation with his daughter about the possibility of him dying, we can see how this can lead to undesirable outcomes.
Mindfulness has proven its mettle for being capable of bringing improvement and positivity to so many areas of human life, quelling death anxiety is no exception. If we know that this mindful processing of death related thoughts leads us to have greater subjective feelings of life satisfaction, more empathy for others and be more prosocial to those we work with, why would we choose to continue suppressing thoughts of death?
Of course, many of the studies mentioned above were correlational in nature, and as social psychological studies (which often are not replicable) the result should be taken tentatively.
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