Love and immortality

Image by Flickr user egroj. Click for sourceWe have a burning instinct for life and yet we know, ultimately, that we will die. We fear the one thing we cannot escape.

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.

Link to ‘The existential function of close relationships: introducing death into the science of love’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

4 Comments

  1. Posted February 15, 2009 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. And if you think about newborn and very young infants who are completely dependent on primary caregivers–might their anxiety be the basis for attachment and all love thereafter? I tell my own kids that after I die, I’ll still love them, and I believe it.

  2. FoxP2
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I adopt a very biological stance on this subject. Life is just a self-sustaining synchronized and patterned movement cycle of chemicals. Our reason for choosing life is the same as insects and bacteria and fungai; to die would mean an end to the cycle. Sentience and love evolved to better our chance for survival and reproduction, so to continue the cycle. Although it is a very macro viewpoint on the reason for life, I still believe it holds true.
    //I swear I’m not a pessimist, and I do laugh on occasion

  3. Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    This reminds me the ancient wisdom of Epicurus to cope with anxiety and any negative feelings.
    Epicurus said:
    “Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist” [to be anxious abou it] (Letter to Menoeceus,125)

  4. Enterhase
    Posted February 19, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    “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.”
    This reminded me of “Romance del enamorado y la muerte”, 15th century: “La Muerte me est√° buscando, junto a ti vida ser√≠a.”


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