Does Thinking of Death Make You Happy? Death and Dental Pain…

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Rather die than go to the dentist? Contemplating our own death is a lot more pleasant than contemplating dental pain, according to research which shows that reminders of death seem to provoke a kind of tuning into positive emotional information, a way of coping which is immediate, unconscious and clearly counterintuitive.

Rather die than go to the dentist? Contemplating our own death is a lot more pleasant than contemplating dental pain, according to the study “From Terror to Joy: Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience” by DeWall and Baumeister (abstract here). It shows that reminders of death seem to provoke a kind of tuning into positive emotional information, a way of coping which is immediate, unconscious and clearly counterintuitive. Daniel Gilbert first called it a “psychological immune response”, kicking in to help us balance out the strong cognitive and behavioural responses triggered by reminders of our own mortality.

DeWall, quoted in Time magazine, says that this is not denial (which we usually know, theoretically, that we are doing) but a genuine resilience of which people are unaware. “So, when people are exposed to serious threats, such as when they consider their own death, which is about as serious as it gets, people are coping, but they’re completely unaware of it.” Three experiments were designed to measure the mood of students, one group who had thought and written about their own death, and the other about dental pain. While explicit psychological tests measuring emotion and affect showed no significant differences between groups, the implicit word association tests which tested the ‘unconscious mood’ made clear that the group who had contemplated death were on much more positive ground.

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Of course, that situation, in which the students were sitting and writing an essay, is a million miles away from the situation in which someone is holding a gun to your head. The findings may therefore apply more precisely to existential dread, to the knowledge that we will all die one day and what we do to deal with that awareness. In his current research, DeWall is finding that other threats, such as that of social rejection, elicit a similar psychological immune response — except, intriguingly, in depressed people.

So maybe depression is what happens when this response breaks down. It is intriguing and heartening to me that the reason we are all able to function despite being aware of death, wars, famine and other forms of suffering is not by denial, refusing to allow this awareness into consciousness, but a positive, natural impulse towards happiness, co-existing alongside, or maybe underneath, all around, the denial or otherwise which is going on mentally. It seems that the organism is wiser than we know.

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