Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Death and meaning in life

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Death and meaning in life:
How does confronting mortality influence the sense of meaning in life?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study:

Figure 1. Frankl, developer of Logotherapy

Viktor Frankl (see Figure 1) was a prisoner in Auschwitz. Based on his experience, he developed Logotherapy. Logotherapy essentially states that finding a meaning in life can reduce human suffering and even heal us (Schulenberg et al., 2008). Frankl's theory came from his experience watching prisoners around him lose purpose and consequently dying. However, those who found purpose, even in the case of collecting cigarettes, had a much higher likelihood of surviving or at least having a “better”, more fulfilled time ... whatever that would have looked like in a concentration camp.

Imagine a world in which we never had to confront our own mortality. Would we still question the meaning in life or carry on with our infinite time just existing? The meaning in life is an age old question. The part that creates so much grief, is that there is there in no specific answer. It is a question that is so individualised and unique to one's own experiences, that meaning can only come from within.

Being aware of your own death, also referred to as mortality salience, is experienced by no other animal except for humans (Leary, 2004). Death is a universal experience but even then these experiences vary based on culture, spirituality, age, and so on. When life provides so much uncertainty and death is one of the only things we can guarantee, why do people have such a hard time confronting it? Is there a way humans could reduce this discomfort? According to theories (see Table 1) such as commitment and acceptance therapy, logotherapy, positive psychology, terror management theory (TMT) and existential theory, confronting mortality can be harnessed to explore and analyse the great, all consuming question of “The meaning in life”.

How and why does this happen and what are the consequences for such an exploration? In the next few sections, this will be explored.

The topic of death and dying will be present through the following sections and may cause distress. Please reach out to your local mental health support centres if this is the case.

Focus questions:
  • What is the relationship between death and meaning in life?
  • What makes death and meaning in life so unique?
  • What are the consequences of confronting mortality?
  • How can the benefits of death reflection be harnessed?
  • What are the theories around this topic?

The relationship between death and meaning in life[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Reflecting on deep questions.

There are many things in life that give humans a sense of meaning. This can be very individual. From finding meaning in one's career or something as abstract as attempting to have a chai latte in every major city of the world. The choice is in the hands of the person. While it is said that there are many things that can give life meaning, would all of this be redundant if humans had unlimited time to do this? Bernard Williams argues that although death can be bad, without it “life would fall into intolerable boredom” (Williams, 1973). There are many theorists that say similar, however Vess et al. (2009), stated that finding meaning in life was a human defence against mortality concerns.

Creating meaning from things, especially something as chaotic as life, is a core part of human psychology (Rowe, 2005). Naturally, when one is confronted with death, there is a strong sense to create meaning from this too. In the case of experiencing a death of a loved one or confronting your own mortality, there are two main reasons people do this: to make sense of the loss and find benefit in the loss (Davis & Nolen‐Hoeksema, 2001), which ties into the defence mechanism of such an event[awkward expression?].

Death confrontation causes intense reactions in humans as its finality can render things meaningless. To mediate this, it often encourages a search for meaning in life[factual?]. Thus, highlighting the relationship of the two[grammar?].

Reflection questions

Would you prefer to:

  • Be immortal
  • Eventually face mortality

Do you think death gives meaning in life?

What is the meaning in life?[edit | edit source]

It is important to differentiate between meaning of life and meaning in life. The former refers to "a final, profound secret" and the latter is more of a mental state. As a subjective state, it can therefore be modified to more adaptive cognitive states (King & Hicks, 2021). Meaning in life is very subjective but is ultimately derived from one's life having purpose, meaning to others and making sense (Steger et al., 2006). Mortality is a motivator and enables individuals to gain meaning in life (Trisel, 2015). Positive psychology (see Table 1), would argue that meaning in life is in complete control of the individual to create.

What makes this experience unique?[edit | edit source]

Frankl (see Figure 1) proposed that each person has a unique sense of meaning. This is the beautiful thing about humans and life, that their experiences and selves are so very unique. Because of these distinctive experiences created by their environments, meaning in life and death are also a unique experience.

Personality and culture[edit | edit source]

In a study by Vess et al. (2009), people who scored highly on personal need for structure (PNS), were rated to have more stable views of meaning in life. However, those with low PNS struggled with not only a decreased meaning but more heightened death thoughts. An individual's culture may shape mortality and meaning in life. Consistent with findings in TMT (see Table 1), culture is a prominent way people make sense and meaning in life. Children are exposed to culture throughout development with things such as deities, to form hope about life after death. This cultural indoctrination continues until an individual's culture shapes mortality salience and meaning in life (Pyszczynski et al., 2015). For example, in some African countries the concept of death involves moving from one realm to the next, heightening meaning in life (Baloyi, 2014). But in America, death is a complete end to life and a somber affair, seen in the funerals held (National Academies Press (US), 1997).

Age, spirituality and religion[edit | edit source]

The consequences of death on meaning in life are altered depending on factors such as age, culture and spiritual inclinations. There is usually an overlap in these factors. This was noted in a study where children [where?] with terminal illness were likely to have a strong sense of meaning. However, these children had some level of religious involvement (Stuber & Houskamp, 2004). Most commonly, children see mortality as a threat and seek to mediate its effects my focussing on physical protection instead of meaning in life. Younger people report higher levels of searching for meaning (Steger et al., 2009). For older people closer to death, a similar thing regarding religion was noted however, their sense of meaning in life was a buffer to mortality salience. In a study by Kruase (2009), meaning in life in older adults contributed to an increase in life expectancy.

As individuals create structure within their lives, this inherently gives some sort of meaning. Additionally, it acts as a defence against death and the realisation that everything could be meaningless. While personality factors also influence mortality and meaning in life, religion is another unique factor, identified in TMT as a buffer against death anxiety. In research by Spitzenstätter and Schnell (2020), participants there was a decreased fear of dying and a heightened acceptance of death for those who were made more aware of their mortality. However, there were no changes in meaningfulness unless religiousness was a factor for the participants.

Consequences for confronting mortality[edit | edit source]

The concept of 'YOLO' (You only live once)

Figure 3. You only live once (YOLO)

The term "YOLO" is used in the context of making a risky decision (Jochemczyk et al., 2017), such as "I'm going to jump out of this plane because, YOLO". Another use could be, "I'm sick of focussing on how my body looks in this swimsuit, I'm going to wear it because, YOLO". Both contexts address the idea of how only having one life is precious and how being aware of this evokes us to form meaning. While this can be positive, there are also potential downfalls. This contrast will be explored in the following section.

Confronting mortality and even questioning the meaning in life can affect a person in many different ways.

Negative consequences[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Maladaptive qualities of TMT[edit | edit source]

Greenberg et al, (1986) created Terror management theory (TMT) (see Table 1), which is a significant contributor in mortality salience and meaning in life. TMT suggests that as a defence to mortality, humans have created constructs such as religion and culture to provide structure in a world that seems chaotic. Additionally, self-esteem acts as the buffer between the anxiety of impending death. Humans do this by measuring themselves against these constructs, deciding on if they live up to the expectations and feeling confident in reaching immortality (afterlife) or symbolic immortality (legacy) (Leary, 2004). There are many maladaptive outcomes to this, which is a result of the need for self-esteem coming from others to validate your cultural beliefs. Anyone that does not maintain a person’s worldview or who is different may be excluded. Additionally, a bias may be projected onto them and they may not be tolerated as a way to protect oneself against mortality salience (Greenberg et al., 1992). The Encyclopedia of Gerontology (2007) argues that ageism occurs as people try to distance themselves from older adults to avoid reminders and anxiety of death.

Mental health issues and lack of meaning[edit | edit source]
Figure 4. Social isolation as an attempt to avoid risky situations.[grammar?]

In some instances, facing mortality has no impact on meaning in life and only causes more harm. In a study by Hernández-Fernández and Falcón (2022), this was found when examining the impact of COVID-19 mortality rates on hospital staff within Italy and Spain. The result of having a 44.8% rise in deaths only caused death anxiety for themselves and their loved ones, leading to mental health problems. The impact of mental health was also noted by Steger et al, (2006). Death was detrimental to meaning in life and consequently resulted in suicide ideation, suicide, and further impacts on depression and anxiety.

Cognition and meaning in life were correlated in research by Sutin et al. (2020), where over a 9-year period, those who were seen to have low levels of meaning in life were 75% more likely to suffer some form of cognitive impairment. As a result of confronting mortality, a complete lack of meaning can become present, which leads to the mental health issues. Death anxiety or thanatophobia, is another factor in confronting mortality. It can impact one's meaning in life by causing avoidance of even slightly risky but potentially rewarding experiences, such as social outings (seen in Figure 4) (Strachan et al., 2007).

Risky behaviours[edit | edit source]

Alternatively, coming face to face with mortality can drive people to make highly risky decisions (as seen in Figure 3). This has negative consequences for a person’s sense of meaning in life. Sex is vital in procreation, a life force and the antithesis of mortality. For some individuals, sex is ladened with the meaning in life to mediate and ward off the effects of death anxiety, as seen in the work of Watter (2018). In a review of literature around hypersexuality and death anxiety, it was noted that in some cases, regardless of being faced with your own or a loved one’s mortality, increased risky sexual behaviour occurred. This was detrimental to health, relationships and had the potential to result in sexual addiction (Watter, 2018). Existential therapy (see Table 1), was mentioned as a useful treatment in this case as it allowed the issue to be drawn back to an individual not feeling in control of their life. Clients are then encouraged to focus on their freedom and make their own meaning in life. Highlighting existential therapy as a beneficial modality when dealing with the negative consequences of confronting mortality[grammar?].

Positive consequences[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Personality[edit | edit source]

Confronting mortality can take two forms; one which creates anxiety, also referred to as death anxiety, and another, less researched idea is death reflection. One’s sense of meaning is distorted when death anxiety, also referred to as mortality salience, is adopted. However, when death reflection is observed in people, a growth-mindset is seen. So is a stronger use of their cognitive systems, which is more rational and analytic, noted in research by Yuan et al, (2018)[grammar?]. These individuals are also more likely to contemplate their meaning and be driven toward making a positive impact. This extends to dealing with the hardships of life better (Grant & Wade‐Benzoni, 2009). Additionally, a longer life expectancy was noted as a result of having a strong sense of meaning (Krause, 2009).

Legacy[edit | edit source]

Making a positive impact that transcends death is a way to deal with mortality salience. It can also increase meaning in life. ‘Leaving a legacy’ is a component explored in terror management theory as well as positive psychology. Here, people are given the power to create their own story and meaning. Legacy enables prosocial behaviours. These include procreation, connecting with others and wanting to make positive change (Waggoner et al., 2023). Other adaptive qualities were seen in Jafari et al, (2020) where confronting meaning in life helps couples in therapy improve their love attitudes.

Self-esteem[edit | edit source]

A major component of TMT is the need for self-esteem to act as a buffer against death anxiety. Increased self-esteem as noted by Maslow's hierarchy of needs (1943), is a way for humans to actualise and get deep purpose and meaning out of their lives. To reach this, psychological needs must be attained. This results in positive consequences for the person. Working on self-esteem also allows one to refine what is genuinely important to them, a crucial aspect in finding meaning from mortality salience.

Harnessing this experience[edit | edit source]

Many theories (see Table 1) centre around harnessing mortality salience to create meaning in life. For example, positive (Seligman, 1998) and existential psychology (May et al., 1980) would ask a person struggling with death anxiety to create their own meaning in life. This is inherently empowering. However, before reaching empowerment this can create struggle and terror; a human part of mortality salience. Terror management theory (Greenberg et al., 1986) states that terror causes people to create constructs as a way to derive meaning and harness the extent of what life can offer them. In this process, one must accept that death is an inevitable part of life. This is where employing acceptance and commitment therapy would be invaluable (Hayes, 1982). To tie this together, logotherapy would argue that without human suffering and mortality salience, there would be no place to make meaning and sense of life (Frankl, 1986).

The theories in theory[edit | edit source]

Case study: Joe

Joe has recently lost someone close to him. He has since felt that life is meaningless, especially if it can end so abruptly. Joe is struggling to find motivation to do anything with his life and feels paralysed by the fear of death. Someone recommends Joe to see a psychologist. In their sessions, they focus on coming to terms with the fact that death is an inevitable part of life. It can also be embraced to make the most of our time on earth. Joe learns to define what is important for him. Resulting in feeling like he is making a difference in the world[grammar?]. His feelings of meaningless and death anxiety subside.

Table 1

[what?]Main theories, their objective and founder/s.

Theory What? Who?
Terror management theory (TMT) The instinct for self preservation while realising death in unpredictable and the terror that this creates. Jeff Greenburg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, 1986.
Logotherapy The search for meaning is the antidote to human suffering and mortality salience. Viktor Frankl, 1938 (see Figure 1).
Positive psychology The good life'. A focus on an individual's strengths and their flourishing. Meaning is a key component of Seligman's framework of wellbeing. Martin Seligman, 1998.
Existential therapy Addresses freedom, death, isolation and meaningless and encourages individuals to create their own meaning. Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, Paul Tillich, 1980.
Acceptance and commitment therapy Accepting life experiences as they come, without trying to change them, consequently reducing distress. Steven Hayes, 1982.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Momento Mori, symbolising death always watching over to serve as a reminder of life.

Confronting mortality and meaning in life has been a key focus in philosophy for many years, with Schopenhauer being the first to explicitly ask this in his writings from the 1800s. However, mortality as a path to meaning has been present since the beginning of ‘"time’". Especially if considered from a TMT perspective, taking into account that culture and religion are a construct[Rewrite to improve clarity]. For that reason, mortality salience and meaning are a unique experience for people. However, there are negative implications such as maladaptive patterns, increased mental health issues, lack of meaning and heightened risky behaviour. Alternatively, there are also many positive outcomes for confronting mortality on one's sense of meaning. Including the impact on personality, the adaptive qualities of legacy and self-esteem[grammar?].

As death is an inevitable part of life, it is essential that humans work toward adopting the more positive aspects of mortality salience. This can be done through the modalities outlined in Table 1. Momento mori (Latin translating to "remember that you have to die"), illustrates that, without the reminder of death, there would be no meaning in life (see Figure 5). Reinforcing the uniqueness of this experience, Yalom's (2008) perspective is "after death, I will be in the same state of nonbeing as before birth"[vague].

So now, "the question". How will you use the inescapability of your own mortality to influence and create a sense of meaning in life?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Baloyi, L. (2014). The African conception of death: A cultural implication.

Davis, C. G., & Nolen‐Hoeksema, S. (2001). Loss and meaning. American Behavioral Scientist, 44(5), 726–741.

Encyclopedia of gerontology. (2007). Choice Reviews Online, 44(10), 44–5394.

Frankl, V. (1959 / 1992). Man’s search for meaning. London, Random House. ISBN: 9781846046384

Grant, A. M., & Wade‐Benzoni, K. A. (2009). The hot and cool of death awareness at work: Mortality cues, ageing, and self-protective and prosocial motivations. Academy of Management Review, 34(4), 600–622.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Springer eBooks, 189–212.

Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror management and tolerance: Does mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who threaten one’s worldview? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 212–220.

Hernández-Fernández, C., & Falcón, C. M. (2022). The worst thing that has happened to me: Healthcare and social services professionals confronting death during the COVID-19 crisis. Frontiers in Public Health, 10.

Jochemczyk, Ł., Pietrzak, J., Buczkowski, R., Stolarski, M., & Markiewicz, Ł. (2017). You only live once: Present-hedonistic time perspective predicts risk propensity. Personality and Individual Differences, 115, 148–153.

Jafari, M. R., Aghaei, A., & Rad, M. R. (2020). Existential humanistic therapy with couples and its effect on meaning of life and love attitudes. American Journal of Family Therapy.

King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The science of meaning in life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584.

Krause, N. (2009). Meaning in life and mortality. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 64B(4), 517–527.

Leary, M. R. (2004). The function of self-esteem in terror management theory and sociometer theory: Comment on Pyszczynski et al. (2004). Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 478–482.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

National Academies Press (US). (1997). A profile of death and dying in America. Approaching Death - NCBI Bookshelf.

Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Thirty years of terror management theory. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 1–70).

Rowe, D. (2005). The meaning of emotion. Journal of Health Organisation and Management, 19(4/5), 290–296.

Schulenberg, S. E., Hutzell, R. R., Nassif, C., & Rogina, J. M. (2008). Logotherapy for clinical practice. Psychotherapy, 45(4), 447–463.

Strachan, E., Schimel, J., Arndt, J., Williams, T., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2007). Terror mismanagement: Evidence that mortality salience exacerbates phobic and compulsive behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(8), 1137–1151.

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P. A., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. E. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80–93.

Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52.

Stuber, M. L., & Houskamp, B. M. (2004). Spirituality in children confronting death. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America.

Sutin, A. R., Luchetti, M., Stéphan, Y., & Terracciano, A. (2020). Meaning in life and risk of cognitive impairment: A 9-year prospective study in 14 countries. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 88, 104033.

Trisel, B. A. (2015). Does death give meaning to life. Journal of Philosophy of Life, 5(2), 62–81.

Vess, M., Routledge, C., Landau, M. J., & Arndt, J. (2009). The dynamics of death and meaning: The effects of death-relevant cognitions and personal need for structure on perceptions of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 728–744.

Waggoner, B., Bering, J. M., & Halberstadt, J. (2023). The desire to be remembered: A review and analysis of legacy motivations and behaviors. New Ideas in Psychology, 69, 101005.

Watter, D. N. (2018). Existential issues in sexual medicine: The relation between death anxiety and hypersexuality. Sexual Medicine Reviews, 6(1), 3–10.

Williams, B. (1973). The Makropulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. Cambridge University Press eBooks (pp. 82–100).

Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the terror of death. The Humanistic Psychologist, 36(3–4), 283–297.

Yuan, Z., Baranik, L. E., Sinclair, R. R., Sliter, M. T., Rand, K. L., & Salyers, M. P. (2018). Memento mori: The development and validation of the death reflection scale. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(4), 417–433.

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