Is Dying a Happy Experience? Psychologists Show People Don't Fear Death When the End Is Near

Death row
A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Scientists analyzed the last statements of people on death row and found their language to be surprisingly positive. Mike Simons/Getty Images

Updated | The prospect of death is frightening for many people. Some become so worried about their own mortality they develop "death anxiety," or thanatophobia, and current research indicates that in general, most believe dying will be dreadful.

But for those who are actually dying, the experience appears to be far more positive than we might imagine.

Research published in the journal Psychological Science on June 1 looks at the blog posts of terminally ill people and the final words of prisoners on death row. Instead of finding language relating to fear and anxiety, researchers found people facing death were surprisingly positive.

The psychologists, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had noticed the language of a column written by children's author Amy Krouse Rosenthal 10 days before her death was "filled with love and hope."

"While such positivity seems strange in someone so near death, our work shows that it is actually fairly typical," study author Kurt Gray said in a statement.

Researchers analyzed the final communications of two groups of people—terminally ill patients who were dying of cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and inmates on death row. For the patients, the researchers looked at blog posts written in the months before they died, while for inmates they looked at their last words.

For both groups, they asked people who were not expecting to die to write blog posts as if they were terminally ill, or what their imagined last words would be if they were on death row. The team then compared these imagined final communications with real-world examples. For the death row inmates, the authors also compared their last words with poems they had written—reflecting how they felt during their time on death row, rather what they felt when death was imminent.

Findings showed the emotions people imagined they would feel before dying were far more negative than those expressed by people who were really facing death. "When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror," Gray said. "But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying—and happier—than you think."

"Humans are incredibly adaptive—both physically and emotionally—and we go about our daily lives whether we're dying or not. In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning."

Computer algorithms showed blog posts from terminally ill people used far more words expressing positive emotions than negative ones, with patients more likely to use "happiness" and "love" over "fear," "anxiety" and "terror." The blog posts written by people who imagined what it would be like to have a terminal illness used significantly more negative words.

Similarly, the last words of people on death row were found to include far more positive words than the poetry they wrote earlier. Both their poems and last words were less negative than those of people who were asked to imagine facing death.

Concluding, the authors said the findings suggest our expectations of the emotions surrounding death are not in line with the reality. "Death is inevitable," they wrote. "But dread is not. These two studies reveal that the experience of dying is unexpectedly positive."

However, the team highlighted the limitations of the study—the research was carried out on two distinct groups of people close to death and the same findings may not be reflected in other groups, such as people who die of old age.

Understanding the emotions surrounding death, they said, is key to future management of death. "Given the aging population, this work has potential to inform the contentious political debate surrounding palliative care," they wrote.

"Currently, the medical system is geared toward avoiding death—an avoidance that is often motivated by views of death as terrible and tragic. This focus is understandable given cultural narratives of death's negativity, but our results suggest that death is more positive than people expect: Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems."

However, Nathan Heflick, a psychologist at the University of Lincoln who was not involved in the study, said the findings should be taken with some reservation. " People who were dying in this research still feared death," he tells Newsweek. "They just didn't fear it as much as the people who were not about to die. I think that is a massively important distinction."

He continues: "I think the study provides evidence for something extremely important: namely, that people who are not dying seem to think dying will be way worse than the people experiencing death think it is. It suggests that thinking about death more readily—being more aware of it—might help people when coping with their own mortality."

However, he says there could be key differences between people who blog about death and those on death row when compared to other people who are dying. "Also, the people in these studies—particularly the blog reports—might be self-presenting to appear less fearful than they are. I can imagine if I were chronically ill and posting my words online for all to hear for all eternity—I'd be tempted to make myself seem far happier, more courageous and stable than I possibly would be. If nothing else, you'd want those close to you to not feel worse for you, so you'd put a positive spin on things, wouldn't you?

"More research is needed to see how people who aren't on death row or blogging about death feel about their own death."

This story has been updated to include quotes from Nathan Heflick.

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