Improve Yourself: Think About Death

Harry Hoover
Feb 13 · 2 min read

I think about the inevitability of death every day. This motivates me to make the most of my time on this planet. Researchers at the University of Arizona have quantified my belief that thinking about death can improve your performance.

In the study, a group of participants was asked to think about death before going onto the basketball court to play. The research subjects scored more points than the control group.

Researchers think that humans have a “terror-management” system to keep thoughts of death at bay. So, when you think about death, your terror-management system goes into overdrive, boosting performance and thus self-esteem.

“Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful,” said UA psychology doctoral student Uri Lifshin, co-lead investigator of the research. “Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

The reason people don’t live in constant fear of their inevitable death is because they have this system to help them deal with it, Lifshin said. “Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem,” he said. “Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

One group of participants was asked questions such as,

“Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,” and, “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.”

The other group was asked questions about their basketball performance.

Those asked about death improved their personal performance in the second game by 40 percent, while those asked about basketball saw no change in performance. Those who thought about death also performed 20 percent better as a whole in the second game than those in the other group. Before the questionnaires, the performance of both groups was roughly even.

Researchers believe their results are not sport-specific nor gender-specific.

“This is a potentially untapped way to motivate athletes but also perhaps to motivate people in other realms,” Zestcott said. “Outside of sports, we think that this has implications for a range of different performance-related tasks, like people’s jobs, so we’re excited about the future of this research.”

Once you accept the inevitability of death, I believe, you can use this to motivate yourself and to value your life more.

Do you think about death this way?

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