How would you live the rest of your life if you knew the exact time, date and method of your death? Would your fear of death shape your future behaviour? Experts think it would.
Every single one of us knows that we are going to die. For most people, it stays at the back of their minds, surfacing only in moments of great self-introspection. Psychologists believe that this lurking fear of death motivates every part of our lives.
It drives our subconscious decisions. Whether this is attending church, having children, following a healthy diet, to how we spend our leisure time. We tend to consign death to the back of our minds. Chris Feudtner, paediatrician and ethicist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania states:
“Most of the time, we go through our days unaware, not thinking of our mortality. We cope by focusing on the things more directly in front of us.”
How we cope with a fear of death in real life
To understand how we would cope if we did know when we would die, we should first examine how we cope with it in real life. Fear of death became a popular topic back in the 1980’s. Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at New York’s Skidmore College, described human beings as “breathing, defecating, self-conscious pieces of meat that can die at any time.” A pretty brutal description. So how do we deal with it?
How we deal with the thought of death
Solomon and his team proposed that humans have to have some belief that their lives have value and that there is some meaning to us being here. In other words, we’re here for a reason. We construct our beliefs from the society and culture we live in.
For example, a person can have a strong religious belief. Solomon and his team called this ‘terror management theory’. We fend off the impending fear of death by believing we matter, we are here for a purpose. Studies appear to support this. When we are nearing death, we cling to our beliefs. We become more steadfast and defensive of any criticism towards them.
Can the mention of death change our behaviour?
There is a comfort of belonging to a group that believe the same things as we do. When we are reminded of death, we become aggressive towards those that don’t share our beliefs. We show contempt and become violent towards those who have different views.
However, if you look the same, come from the same area, share the same political views and agree with us, chances are you’ll be treated favourably. As for our loved ones, if they share our views, we develop a deeper attachment to them. We become more patriotic, we treat outsiders with disdain and lean towards charismatic leaders that espouse our own beliefs.
Our habits are also likely to change when we think about death. We indulge more in bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, eating to excess and shopping. On the other hand, things like caring for the environment take a back seat.
So if we take our behaviour when death is merely mentioned, it stands to reason that if we know the actual time and date of our death, these behaviours will be exaggerated. We will become more aggressive, violent, racist, environmentally destructive, obese, alcoholic smoking nightmares. However, this is pretty generalised. How individuals would react depends very much on that person’s personality and the way in which they will die.
Who is likely to change their behaviour?
Think about it. My father, for instance, died at the age of 96, peacefully in his own bed, without suffering from any major disease. A pretty nice way to go, I think you’d agree. So if I told you that you’d go the same way, you probably wouldn’t have a problem with death. You would feel as if you had the best chance of a full life and your death wasn’t particularly scary. Would you still have a fear of death at all? And how likely is it that you’d change your current behaviour?
On the other hand, imagine if I told you that you’d die at the age of 32 in a horrific car accident, or murdered at the hands of a sick sadist? Would your fear of death now change your behaviour?
Studies on terminally ill patients
One way to find out is to look at studies conducted on terminally ill patients. When a patient is first diagnosed as terminal, they typically question the actual diagnosis. Terminal patients want to know if there’s anything that can be done. Once they realise the inevitability of death, they have to decide how to spend the rest of their time. Some choose to fight their illness and others opt for spending as much time as they have left with their loved ones.
Let’s return to that imaginary death time and date. Researchers believe that people are likely to behave in the same way as those terminally ill patients.
“Even if you know you have 60 more years, eventually that lifespan is going to be measured in just a couple years, months and days,” Feudtner told BBC. “Once that clock winding down becomes too close for comfort, I think we’d see people moving in these two different directions.”
Two ways of facing death
For instance, imagine you’d been told you were going to die in a car accident, you might spend the rest of your life avoiding cars, traffic, or travel of any kind. You would belong to the first category, the ones that are going to fight their deaths.
Those that accept their deaths might behave in a number of ways. For example, if you had been told you were going to suffer a long, lingering and painful death, your fear of death might lead you to end your life. In this way, you’d have control over your life and death.
Others might be less inhibited and try new and exciting things. You often see this with terminally ill patients who construct a bucket list. Those who accept the time and date of their death could feel empowered to make the most of the rest of their life. They could map out a future for themselves that allows them to achieve much greater heights than before.
“What I’d like to think is that knowing our death date would bring out the best in us, that it would give us the psychological latitude to be able to do more for ourselves and for our families and communities,” Solomon says.
The power of the fear of death
Once we know the exact amount of time we have left, it could inspire and motivate us to push further than we would if we believed we had unlimited time. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Research gathered from trauma survivors shows that people who have faced death and survived said they had changed in a profound way. They were stronger, more spiritual, they appreciated life more and lived for the moment. In other words, they made the most of life.
However, the bad news is that for others, the overwhelming feeling of pointlessness would lead them to check out of society. They would give up on a healthy lifestyle, lead a hedonistic life and generally not bother with being a decent human being.
It’s also possible that faced with our own death date, we’d see-saw between the two states. One moment going off to try sky-diving for the first time, then lounging watching box sets on Netflix.
Whichever type you think you are, we all have to face up to the fact that we are going to die. The answer is to live your best life and not allow your fear of death to ruin your experience.