People express unexpectedly positive emotions when they are approaching their death, even though thinking about dying can cause considerable anxiety, scientists have found. Fear of death is a fundamental part of the human experience – we dread the possibility of pain and suffering and we worry that we will face the end alone.
However, the actual emotional experiences of the dying are less negative than people expect, according to findings published in the journal Psychological Science.
‘When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror,’ said Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US. ‘But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying – and happier – than you think,’ said Gray. The research, which examined the writings of terminally ill patients and inmates on death row, suggests that we focus disproportionately on the negative emotions caused by dying, without considering the broader context of everyday life.
‘Humans are incredibly adaptive – both physically and emotionally – and we go about our daily lives whether we’re dying or not,’ Gray said. ‘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,’ he said. Researchers analysed the emotional content of blog posts from terminally ill patients who were dying of either cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
To be included in the study, the blogs had to have at least 10 posts over at least 3 months and the author had to have died in the course of writing the blog. For comparison, the researchers asked a group of online participants to imagine that they had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and to write a blog post, keeping in mind that they had only a few months to live. Researchers analysed the actual and imagined blog posts for words that described negative and positive emotions, such as ‘fear,’ ‘terror,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘happiness,’ and ‘love.’
The results showed that blog posts from individuals who were terminally ill included considerably more positive emotion words and fewer negative emotion words than did those written by participants who simply imagined they were dying. Looking at the patient’s’ blog posts over time, the researchers also found that their use of positive emotion words actually increased as they neared death, while their use of negative emotion words did not.