Thinking about death is often something that we try to avoid at all costs, but could there be a psychological benefit to it?
There’s an emerging concept in psychology known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) that explores how humans respond to the prospect of death.
According to the theory, the thought of death often presents a psychological conflict between having a strong desire to live, while at the same time realizing that death is an inevitable part of life.
This conflict can often lead to terror and “existential anxiety” within individuals, but at the same time it can motivate them to re-evaluate their lives, especially their core values, priorities, and what truly gives their lives meaning and purpose.
In other words: thinking about death can be transformative.
In one recent study published in the journal Society for Personality and Social Psychology, it was discovered that thinking about death can have a positive influence by enabling individuals to re-prioritize their goals and values.
In fact, it was also found that even non-conscious exposure to death – such as casually walking by a cemetery – could prompt positive changes to one’s life, as well as promote more kindness and compassion toward others.
When I first heard about this study, I could immediately relate to its findings.
Back when I was a freshman in college, my depression reached a crescendo. I’ve shared this story many times throughout this site (such as in my post when you have to completely breakdown before you can rebuild yourself) – but in short, I was terribly lonely, unmotivated, and I even flirted with suicidal thoughts a lot.
I began to try small things to help boost my mood and reinvigorate my life with some sort of meaning and purpose again. Some of these things included taking up photography, writing poetry, and volunteering at a local elementary school in the area.
During my bus ride to the elementary school, I would often pass by a cemetery that was only a couple stops away from my destination. And one day I decided to get off at this stop and take a walk through the cemetery.
Of course, being away at college, I didn’t actually know anyone that was buried at this cemetery. I just felt compelled to check it out – especially since my mind had been preoccupied with death a lot during this period in my life.
I would often have destructive and nihilistic thoughts like, “I’m just going to die anyway, so what’s the point of anything?”
But taking a walk through this cemetery was insightful for me. I looked around at all the gravestones, one by one, and I began to think to myself, “These people are no longer alive – but I still am. And I should do something positive with this life, because this is a rare opportunity to have and I won’t always be this lucky…”
That was a very powerful insight for me.
For the next few weeks I stopped by the cemetery multiple times (often with my camera), and I’d take a long and reflective walk by myself. It was a very sobering and grounding experience, but it was exactly what I needed to give myself some perspective about life.
To this day, I still stop by random cemeteries every now and then. It’s a constant reminder to me that I’m still alive and I still have work to do so long as I am still here and still breathing.
Walking through a cemetery helped give me a new perspective on life. It taught me to be more grateful and appreciative for every breath that I have, because our time on Earth is limited and we should make the most of it while we can.
This is very similar to the teachings of the philosophy Stoicism, which often encourages individuals to focus on all of the ways things could be worse (including the concept of death), to help them grow a stronger appreciation for the things they have in their lives.
So if you’re going through a difficult time in your life – or you find yourself questioning, “Why live?” – a walk through a cemetery might be just what you need to bring yourself back to life.
It’s a very simple exercise. Just look up a local cemetery in your area and find a nice afternoon or evening to take a walk through it. You can even combine your walk with a bit of mindful photography to enhance your introspection and reflection.
Of course, other experiences of death (like losing a loved one or having a “near death experience”) can have a similarly sobering effect on our lives and influence us to re-evaluate our goals and values. But we don’t always have to wait for a serious tragedy to occur if we want to gain a deeper perspective on life and death.
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