Thinking About Mortality Changes How We Act

Thinking About Mortality Changes How We Act

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Scientists have been exploring the idea that we are all governed by two disparate existential systems, each with its own distinct method of processing the idea of death. Both existential minds have the power to meaningfully change our attitudes and actions, but they work in very different—almost opposite—ways.

One of our systems of existential thinking responds to the abstract concept of dying, so that even subtle everyday reminders of death, such as driving past a cemetery, prime the mind to ward off existential terror. This system tends to bolster our already existing beliefs, both religious and cultural, as a way of affirming life. For instance, studies have shown that after people reflect on what will happen when they die, they become more nationalistic and defensive about their political beliefs.

The second existential system is vivid, concrete and highly personal; it is triggered not by subtle and abstract thoughts but by actually coming face to face with death. When this system is primed into action, our very personal sense of mortality can lead us to reexamine our priorities in life, to become more grateful and to grow spiritually. Soldiers who have seen combat and people who have lived through life-threatening illnesses often report these shifts in attitude.

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