Can Reflecting On Death Make You More Altruistic?

When presented with our own mortality, we become more giving, and happier as a result.

Death comes for us all in time, and that notion is quite terrifying. One group of researchers recently found that when people approach certain birthday milestones, there tends to be a spike in life-altering decisions from running a marathon to having an affair. But there's another way to feel good and stave off those feelings of death: through giving.


Charles Dickens' Scrooge is the poster child for this effect. In realizing his own life would come to an end some day, he changed his ways and became more giving (and happier because of it). Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard writes on a recent study that revisits the Scrooge phenomena and explains how awareness of our finite time on this Earth can prompt altruistic behavior in us all.

Researchers out of Poland write in their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology:

"Acting pro-socially in the face of mortality thoughts effectively soothes death anxiety, and in turn produces psychological satisfaction.”

The scientific term for this behavior is “terror management theory,” and it's defined as how “people deal with the potential for anxiety that results from the knowledge of the inevitability of death by holding on to sources of value that exist within their cultural worldview.” In short, people will attempt to transcend death by creating something that will live on after they've died by contributing to a cause and doing good works or believing in an afterlife.

So, what about us average Joes? The researchers tested this theory on a group of students, asking one group of participants to fill out a "fear of death" questionnaire, while another group filled out a questionnaire about dental-pain anxiety.

After completing their questionnaires, the participants spent some time distracting themselves with a short crossword puzzle. The students were then presented with two envelopes labeled “Me” and “Player Two.” They were told to divide 30 Polish zlotys (about $8) between the envelopes. To raise the stakes, participants were also told that one-third of participants would "receive real payoffs after the study."

Not only did people who were prompted with thoughts of death put more into the “Player Two” envelope, but also researchers write that they "derived higher joy from giving more."

The researchers concluded in their paper “that acting pro-socially in the face of mortality thoughts effectively soothes death anxiety and in turn produces psychological satisfaction.”

Read more at Pacific Standard.

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp / Flickr

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

In U.S. first, drug company faces criminal charges for distributing opioids

It marks a major shift in the government's battle against the opioid crisis.

George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The nation's sixth-largest drug distributor is facing criminal charges related to failing to report suspicious drug orders, among other things.
  • It marks the first time a drug company has faced criminal charges for distributing opioids.
  • Since 1997, nearly 222,000 Americans have died from prescription opioids, partly thanks to unethical doctors who abuse the system.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less

Calling out Cersei Lannister: Elizabeth Warren reviews Game of Thrones

The real Game of Thrones might be who best leverages the hit HBO show to shape political narratives.

Photo credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren argues that Game of Thrones is primarily about women in her review of the wildly popular HBO show.
  • Warren also touches on other parallels between the show and our modern world, such as inequality, political favoritism of the elite, and the dire impact of different leadership styles on the lives of the people.
  • Her review serves as another example of using Game of Thrones as a political analogy and a tool for framing political narratives.
Keep reading Show less