The Science of Getting Over It

Endings can be healthy, even when we fear them.

"The End" illustration
Luci Gutiérrez

Despite our commitment to 24/7 news, unlimited-data plans, and bottomless mimosas, nothing lasts forever. So how should we handle life’s endings and last hurrahs? Should we rage against the dying of the light, or be content to let things go?

Approaching an end can have a focusing effect, leading people to summon strength for a final push. A study of more than 3,000 professional soccer games found that 56 percent of goals were tallied in the second half, and almost 23 percent came in the final 15 minutes of a 90-minute match. (Of course, the goal scorers can’t take all the credit, as defenders’ tired legs also play a part. Endings and exhaustion go hand in hand.) [1] Deadlines have a similar effect on dealmaking. A 1988 analysis of several bargaining experiments found that 41 percent of deals were struck in the final 30 seconds of the allotted time, and most of those were resolved with five seconds or less to spare. [2]

How well people navigate the end of an era depends partly on what coping mechanisms they deploy. Detachment is one approach: Among homeowners undergoing foreclosure, people early in the process expressed deep emotion at what they saw as the loss of their “home”—yet by the time it passed out of their hands, they tended to view it as merely a “house.” [3] Mourning is another approach, even when the stakes aren’t life or death: Fans of shows such as Entourage and The Sopranos exhibited the same bereavement patterns in response to their show’s end as people grieving a loved one. (An exception was a subset of viewers who angrily wrote off shows’ final seasons as failures.) [4]

Distraught fans should keep in mind that even endings we resist may be better than expected. For example, while breakups tend to cause stress, the end of a relationship can also lead to a feeling of significant personal growth, particularly among women. [5] The same goes for anticipation of the ending that awaits us all: A study analyzing blog posts by terminally ill patients and the last words of death-row inmates found they used language that was significantly more positive than did people who were asked to imagine the words they would use if facing death. [6] Another study, this one focusing on end-of-life professionals such as hospice workers, found that firsthand exposure to death left these people more likely to “live in the present, cultivate a spiritual life and reflect deeply on the continuity of life.” [7] People who had near-death experiences, meanwhile, reported an increased sense of spiritual well-being; the more serious the brush with death, the deeper that sense. [8]

So perspective may be the X factor that keeps the unthinkable from being the unbearable. Fortunately, astrophysicists predict that the most definitive ending imaginable—the point at which matter will essentially cease to exist—is still about 10¹⁰⁰ years off, leaving plenty of time to reframe that looming end as a growth opportunity. [9] Unfortunately, as it goes for universes, so it goes for fun little columns about human behavior, and that’s why it’s my sad duty to announce that this is the final Study of Studies. But just think of the horizons opened by its conclusion. And thanks for reading.

The Studies

[1] W. W. S. Njororai, “Timing of Goals Scored in Selected European and South American Soccer Leagues, FIFA and UEFA Tournaments and the Critical Phases of a Match” (International Journal of Sports Science, Nov./Dec. 2014)

[2] Roth et al., “The Deadline Effect in Bargaining” (American Economic Review, Feb. 1988)

[3] Barbara L. Gross, “The Experience of Home Foreclosure” (European Advances in Consumer Research, 2008)

[4] Russell and Schau, “When Narrative Brands End” (Journal of Consumer Research, April 2014)

[5] Tashiro and Frazier, “ ‘I’ll Never Be in a Relationship Like That Again’ ” (Personal Relationships, March 2003)

[6] Goranson et al., “Dying Is Unexpectedly Positive” (Psychological Science, July 2017)

[7] Shane Sinclair, “Impact of Death and Dying on the Personal Lives and Practices of Palliative and Hospice Care Professionals” (Canadian Medical Association Journal, Feb. 2011)

[8] Khanna and Greyson, “Near-Death Experiences and Spiritual Well-Being” (Journal of Religion and Health, Dec. 2014)

[9] Adams and Laughlin, “A Dying Universe” (Review of Modern Physics, April 1997)

This article appears in the November 2019 print edition with the headline “All Good Things …”