Do you fall into existential dread when you're reminded that you'll die someday? You may be surprised by the factors that subtly (or not so subtly) change our attitudes toward death. We may even be able to control some of them to master our fear.
Are you afraid of death? Do you think about it a lot, dreading that it will happen one day? Or do you shrug and accept death as inevitable and okay?
I remember having this very philosophical and psychological discussion with family members last year, and it was fascinating how we had such different feelings. Some said that knowing death happens to all of us eventually is a relief and that the idea of immortality is terrifying. Others were astounded by this stance, saying they regularly lose sleep over the thought that they will die one day, and would immediately take an immortality pill if it was offered.
Is this purely a philosophical difference? Does it matter how we feel towards death?
It turns out that how much we fear death can affect how we think and act in daily life. For example, a 2016 study found that fear of death could amplify our desire for revenge and political violence. Palestinian, Israeli, and South Korean participants were prompted to think about personal pain or death, and then asked about their opinions about how specific political conflicts should be resolved. Those who were reminded of death were more likely to support military action than those who only thought about pain.
A recent study found that those who feared death were more likely to have prolonged grief symptoms compared to those who had an accepting attitude toward death.
Fearing death also makes it harder for us to grieve. A recent study found that those who feared death were more likely to have prolonged grief symptoms after losing a loved one compared to those who had an accepting attitude toward death. For healthcare workers who care for dying patients, their own fear of death may get in the way of effectively communicating with patients and their families.
Why do we fear death?
This question seems too obvious. Death—what isn’t there to be afraid of? It’s the ultimate end! So how come some people fear it more than others?
There are some things that may subtly, or not so subtly, affect how much we fear death (or at least how much we’re aware of it.)
1. Older people tend to fear death less
This one may seem counter-intuitive, but this pattern has been found again and again in research studies. We may assume that the older a person is, and the closer they presumably are to death, the more they should be afraid of it. But in fact, older age is usually associated with more acceptance of death. This could be because older people have less fear of missing out, since they have experienced more of life, or it may be because they have more experience with witnessing and coping with the death of others.
2. Religious belief makes us more afraid (but in a complicated way)
Here’s another counter-intuitive one. You may think that religious belief, which usually includes belief in an afterlife or a greater meaning to life, would make people feel better about the finality of death. But studies have found greater fear of death amongst those with stronger religiosity across several different cultures and religions.
But to be fair, there are also studies showing the opposite.
The truth may actually be more complicated. Some studies have found that, at least among Westerners, those who fear death most are moderately religious. Both non-believers and very religious people feared death less.
It’s possible that being moderately religious puts people in the “existential sweet spot” for being afraid of death—they don’t have the relaxed detachment of non-believers, nor do they have the full and contented conviction about the afterlife of very religious people. It’s also possible that the egg comes before the chicken—people who particularly fear death seek out religion as a way to cope, but they don’t end up being very religious.
3. Experience with danger
The amount of experience you have with danger may change your fear of death, too, and also not in a linear way, meaning, some experience makes you fear death less, but too much might make you afraid again.
In a very cool study, researchers recruited beginner, intermediate, and expert skydivers to share their feelings about death. Not surprisingly, beginner skydivers, with only an average of 1 jump under their belt, were scared of death. Intermediate skydivers, with an average of 90 jumps, were a lot less scared. But—and this is the interesting part—expert skydivers, who had jumped over 700 times, were more scared of death than intermediate skydivers.
Having some experience with danger makes you fear death less, but too much might make you afraid again.
This tells us it’s not just that the more often you’ve risked death, the less scared you are. There may be a learning curve, where getting some experience makes you feel less anxious (maybe because you gain a greater sense of control), but getting a lot of experience makes you more aware that you’re not above death after all.
4. Physical health
This one is less surprising: People with better physical health tend to fear death less. But the reason may not be what you think.
Researchers have found that those with better physical health tend to feel like there is more meaning in life. They also tend to have better mental health. These are the factors that make them fear death less. In a way, this is encouraging news. For many people who cannot control their physical health, they may still be able to find meaning in life and work on their mental health to decrease their existential dread.
5. Attachment style
Attachment styles refer to ways we think about and behave in close relationships. These are shaped very early in life. By the time we’re adults, we’re usually pretty settled into either secure or insecure attachment styles. Securely attached people tend to be trusting, consistent, and supportive partners. Insecurely attached people can be overly anxious and controlling, or aloof and detached, or a mix of both.
I did a 3-part series on attachment styles earlier this year to dissect what all of this means.
When it comes to death anxiety, people with secure attachment styles fear death less than people with insecure attachment styles. This is interesting because it shows that there’s a relationship and intimacy aspect to the way we think about death.
What can you do to become less afraid of death?
All of this research showing that fear of death may be fluid depending on our beliefs and experiences begs the question: What can we do to fear death less?
Some things that affect your fear of death can’t be controlled, such as your age. Even your attachment style, physical health, or religious beliefs are things you can't easily dial up or down. And most of us probably can’t (or won’t) go skydiving 90 times. But researchers have found some other things we may be able to do:
1. Help the next generation
The term “generativity” refers to a concern for younger people and a desire to nurture and guide them. Older people who have a greater sense of generativity also tend to have a better sense of who they are and can look back on their life without regret or despair. This, understandably, leads to having less fear of death.
Even if you don’t have children or grandchildren, you can feed your generativity by mentoring younger people in a career or in life. You can volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, or tutor a neighborhood kid, or serve on a career advice panel.
2. Don’t avoid the topic of death
Understandably, we try to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. But often, avoidance makes those things loom even larger and scarier in our minds. It works like this with the idea of death, too.
We try to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. But often, avoidance makes those things loom even larger and scarier in our minds.
An interesting study with funeral directors found that those with more experience (who had directed more funerals) feared death less. Among physicians, more years of experience, and more exposure to death, also led to less fear of death. If you’re neither a funeral director nor a healthcare worker, you can still read about death, not avoid funerals, or (if you also want to do some good) volunteer with organizations who take care of those with terminal illnesses.
3. Have a (simulated) out of body or near-death experience
This one is fascinating. Multiple research studies have found that having an out of body experience or near-death experience makes people less afraid of death. In the case of near-death experiences, it might be that the things we confront are less scary to us. In the case of out of body experiences, it might give us the sense that we live on even when we are separated from our bodies.
Of course, don’t go out and try to have a near-death experience. We don’t want it to end up being ... not-so-near. But with virtual reality becoming more and more accessible, you could try out a program that simulates an out-of-body experience.
4. Cultivate your meaning in life
Of all the tips, I think this is the most important.
Many studies have supported this idea. For example, we know that reminding people of their own mortality tends to make them fear death. But if someone feels a strong sense of having meaning in life, this reminder doesn’t bother them.
How to go about cultivating meaning in life? It’s not easy, and it’s an ongoing journey, but you can start by identifying your values, which are big-picture driving forces that guide your journey through life. I talked about this in detail in a previous episode on living a meaningful life. In short, you can start by doing a Values Card Sort to brainstorm what your most important values may be—creativity, connectedness, curiosity, achievement, tranquility … there are many options and no wrong answers.
Mark Twain said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
This is very wise! Based on the research, I think it would be more precise to replace “lives fully” with “lives meaningfully.” But for some people, perhaps these are the same. No matter what your meaningful life looks like, start to cultivate it now, and you’ll be too busy feeling fulfilled to be afraid of death.