Today I came across a short article on a science site arguing that thinking about one's own mortality may actually improve mental health. This interested me, in part because of the frequently heard objection that thinking about death (or life after death) is inherently depressing and a sign of an unhealthy obsession.
The article's author, Nathan Heflick, seems to take it for granted that death equals personal extinction:
... everything and everyone we value, everything we cherish, could just vanish at any moment ... An awareness of our own death is potentially extremely distressing because it renders you aware that you are, ultimately, no more significant than food sources and animals, or as [one expert] put it: “lizards and potatoes”.
Even when approached from this rather materialistic perspective, writing and thinking about death can apparently be beneficial:
James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, has conducted studies in which people wrote about deeply emotional – and hence often distressing – topics over the course of weeks or months. His work generally found that these writing exercises increased mental, and even physical, health ...
Irvin Yalom, a clinical psychologist who deals with existential issues, has also written about how contemplating mortality on a deeper level can have positive psychological effects. He has argued specifically that people who accept and face death develop a more “authentic” life in which their behaviour and goals more align with their values.
Heflick himself has conducted a small study in which college students "write about death or another aversive topic each day for one week, or they just reply to specific questions in an email each day on which they have to spend five to ten minutes – one example they’ve been asked to reflect on is that if you’re aware life is short and that you could die sooner than you think, how does it make you feel and how does it impact you in general?"
Later they answer a questionnaire that assesses their feelings. The research "suggests that there are positive psychological effects to writing about mortality. Specifically, participants who are in the repeated death writing group have been reporting lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self-esteem and increased intrinsic motivation."
In addition, there's some evidence that study participants feel more forgiving toward others and more willing to attempt reconciliation. "Interestingly, many of these effects occur only in individuals who have moderate levels of depressive symptoms going into the study (though well below clinical levels). It appears then that the mildly depressed may benefit most from a deeper reflection on their own mortality."
Many of history's deepest and most creative thinkers devoted close attention to the subject of their own mortality - think of Socrates and Plato, Augustine and Boethius, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. It shouldn't be too surprising to find they were on to something.