Life Meaning and Death

Human beings think about the impact and inevitability of death throughout much of their lives. Most children understand by the ages of 5 to 7 that death is the irreversible ending of all life functions, and that it happens to all living beings. Adolescents fully comprehend the meaning of death, but they often believe that they are somehow immortal. As a result, they may engage in risky behavior, such as driving recklessly or smoking, with little thought of dangerous consequences.

Although most young and middle adults have gained a more realistic view of death through the death of some family members or friends, anxiety about death may be more likely to peak in middle adulthood. As people continue aging, they gradually learn to accept the eventual deaths of loved ones, as well as their own deaths. By later adulthood, most people come to accept—perhaps with some tranquility if they feel they have lived meaningfully—the inevitability of their own demise, which prompts them to live day by day and make the most of whatever time remains. If they do not feel they have lived meaningfully, older adults may react to impending death with feelings of bitterness or even passivity.

The concept of searching for meaning in life through death is one of the foundations of existential psychology. Existential psychologists like Rollo May believe that individuals must accept the inevitability of their own deaths and the deaths of loved ones; otherwise, they cannot fully embrace or find true meaning in life. This theory tracks with research that indicates that the more purpose and meaning that individuals see in their lives, the less they fear death. In contrast, the denial of death leads to existential anxiety, which can be a source of emotional troubles in daily life.