“Live each day as if it were your last.”
“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as though you’ll die today.”
We’ve all heard these quotes. Is it good advice? As it turns out, it may not be. People have varying reactions to the idea of death and their own mortality. Clearly, humans have trouble thinking about death. Yet we regularly see exercises that focus on our mortality in training classes–get to know activities and ice breakers. Two examples…
“If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want your obituary to say?”
“Take ten minutes and write how you would like to be remembered at your memorial service.”
Without truly understanding the research about how people react when thinking about their own mortality we may get a reaction that we’re not looking for.
People use emotions, and anyone that uses emotions to focus his attention must have a healthy fear of death. A great quote that reflects on this is “one cannot look directly at either the sun or death.” La Rochefoucauld, 1665
As it turns out, for some people thinking about death can be a positive thing. The awareness of their own mortality can improve their physical health and their behavior. It can help them refocus and re-prioritize their values and become clear on their goals. However, for others it creates anxiety and it reinforces belief systems that may not actually be healthy, positive or productive. In truth, it’s inconclusive. People react differently, based on the circumstances.
The research started with studies on how to cope with death and terror management. Many of these studies have been supported over time and have been criticized over time. The basic concept is that the anxiety or fear of death pushes people to maintain and sometimes actually strengthen faith in their own beliefs to a point that is often detrimental to others. In essence, we become more prejudice, xenophobic when we think about our death.
One study looked at judges and put them into two groups. They asked judges to set the bond for an alleged prostitute. One group of judges that were just asked to set the bond set an average bond of $50.00. The judges that were reminded of their mortality before setting the bond set the average bond at $455.00. So, as you can see from that research study thinking about your death definitely impacts ones behavior.
What about the other side of the coin? What about the side of the coin that thinking about death is a good thing? Awareness of your mortality can improve your health and can help you strengthen your goals. In another study, researchers had people walk through a cemetery which made them think about their death. In that cemetery they had actors drop a notebook to see who would help that person who dropped the notebook. In one of the scenarios the researchers had actors nearby talk about the value of helping others prior to the actor dropping the notebook. When the value of helping others was made clear the number of participants who helped the individual who dropped the notebook was 40% greater than when the value of helping others was not made clear. What this tells us is that under the right circumstances we can create more tolerance, more compassion and more empathy for one another when we are thinking about our own mortality.
So the next time you are coaching an individual, or running a training class, and you decide to use an exercise that gets participants to think about their own mortality, remember – for some it will be a positive experience and for others it may not, but if you want to increase your odds, make sure you make clear the value of helping others as a part of that process.