The Secret to a Long Life Is ... Thinking About Death

A review of recent research shows that people are better to themselves and others when they're thinking about their own mortality.

Alexis Madrigal

Woody Allen once said, "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Sometimes awareness of mortality can be a little scary, or make life seem a bit bleak. But a new study finds that when we're reminded of our mortality, we may actually be better to ourselves and kinder to others.

Authors of a new study reviewed earlier research that had set out to determine how the awareness of death might influence people's positive behaviors towards others and themselves. Lead author Kenneth Vail and his team discussed some of the noteworthy findings. One study, for example, found that people are actually more likely to help out others when they are in the immediate vicinity of a cemetery.

When we're reminded of our mortality, we may actually be better to ourselves and kinder to others.

When actors talked to unsuspecting passersby about the value of helping others, the passersby were more likely to help people who had dropped a notebook when they were near a cemetery, compared to people who hadn't been "primed" in the same way.

Other studies have found that people are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors when are reminded about the reality of death. And the awareness of mortality may also prompt people to engage in healthier behaviors for themselves. When they are reminded about death, people are more likely to use sunscreen, smoke less, exercise more, and perform breast self-exams.

Much research has focused on understanding how our awareness of death can promote negative or destructive behaviors. For example, one school of thought suggests that we engage in certain behaviors or maintain certain beliefs to deal with the unpleasant feelings of mortality. The authors of this study suggest that it might be more beneficial to understand how the motivations triggered by being aware of death can actually improve people's lives. They conclude by suggesting that the "dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life."

Vail is at the University of Missouri, and published the study in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City


Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Health

Just In