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How to Become Less Afraid of Death

How to Become Less Afraid of Death
From TIME - February 15, 2018

Death, in the view of many theorists, is a good thing, at least for a society that aspires to be creative. When youre on the clock, you accomplish more. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, called mortality a mainspring of human activity. If you want to invent a light bulb or paint a Mona Lisa, youd best get started, because checkout time is coming.

Thats perfectly fine when youre contemplating the human species as a whole, but our personal mortality is a different matter, right? Not always. A 2017 study in Psychological Science tallied the number of positive and negative words in blog posts written by the terminally ill and compared them with essays by people who were asked to imagine being near death and then write about it. The dying people, it turned out, were more positive.

People are able to come to terms with death as they age, thanks to what psychologists building on Beckers work dubbed Terror Management Theory. Equal parts denial and self-soothing, courage and fatalism, TMT is what kept Cold War Americans going despite fear of nuclear annihilation, and got New Yorkers out to work on that Sept. 12 following the terrorist attack.

Some TMT techniques involve what psychologists call constructive distraction: busying ourselves with a lifetime of meaningful things. When faced with acute reminders of deathsay, a funeralwe push back with something that prolongs life, like going for a run. We also become good at flippancy, making death benign or comicalthink Halloween costumes.

We get better at this as we age. A 2000 meta-analysis found that fear of death grows in the first half of life, but by the time we hit the 61-to-87 age group, it recedes to a stable, manageable level.

Terror management happens not just individually but collectively, through our affiliation with social systems that define us, especially religion, nation and family. Religion is the most direct, because so many faiths sidestep fear of death by promising eternal life. But along with nation and family, religion provides something subtler too: a community that gives a kind of constitutional order to a cosmos that otherwise makes no sense.

Death is typically on the fringes of our awareness, says Thomas Pyszczynski, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. When reminded of their mortality, people cling to their worldviews more and react more warmly to people and ideas that comfort them.

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