The question ‘why live?’ has preoccupied thinkers from the alpha to the omega of human history, but only relatively recently have we considered the question of ‘how’ – how do we live with this fear, this knowledge of our own demise?
We recognise love as our companion and protector and we now think that it may even shield us from death itself, at least while we’re alive.
‘Terror management theory’ sounds oddly militaristic to the modern ear, but it was never intended to makes us think of politics. It was developed by psychologist Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues to help explain how we live with existential angst.
The theory suggests we have various ways of keeping the fear of death out of our conscious mind, and of understanding what makes our life meaningful.
Traditionally, researchers have focused on the effect of a social element – how we feel we fit in to our culture’s ideas about what makes a meaningful life, and a personal element – how we feel about ourselves, but more recently psychologists have been focusing on love as one of the most important ways of managing our existential fears.
Love beyond life is a constant poetic theme, and yet these are not simply poetic theories, they have been drawn from empirical research.
Never afraid to strip the poetry from the profound, cognitive scientists have labelled their most important existential paradigm ‘mortality salience’.
It involves reminding people of death – an experimental memento mori – and numerous studies have found that simply focusing people on their time-limited lives changes how they think and behave.
One of the most reliable effects, is that being reminded of death makes us more socially minded – more likely to want to be physically close to others, more likely to want to have children, but also more likely to support the norms and stereotypes of your own social group.
A group of Israeli psychologists were inspired to wonder whether love might protect us against our fear of death, and whether our anxieties motivate us to seek out love.
In an ingenious 2002 study, they found that reminding people of their demise increased their self-professed romantic commitment, that thinking about a committed relationship reduced the effects of morality salience on harsh social judgements, and that thinking about the end of a relationship increased thoughts of death.
A year later, they reviewed research on love and death and came to the conclusion that close relationships help us manage the anxiety of mortality, partly through the strength of the bond, but partly through the fact that romantic partnerships give us a symbolic way of transcending death – as families provide a way for our contribution to ‘live on’ after the final curtain.
These studies are some of the first on what has been called ‘experimental existential psychology’ that seek to understand how we manage our lives in the face of the unknown.
But the fact remains that we will die, and hopefully, we will love. Perhaps we have no profounder response.