A person’s level of self-alienation, or feeling disconnected from oneself, plays a pivotal role in the relationship between perceived meaning in life and death anxiety, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality. The findings suggest that merely recognizing a purpose in life may not be enough to shield us from existential dread.
For decades, psychologists have been curious about how humans grapple with the concept of death. The idea that we will all eventually cease to exist can be profoundly unsettling. This fear of death, known as death anxiety, has long captured the interest of researchers.
But there’s more to the story. People often seek meaning in their lives. This quest for meaning isn’t just about finding purpose; it’s also a way to cope with existential concerns, including the fear of death. It’s as if the belief that our lives have significance can provide a shield against the looming specter of mortality.
“I’m interested in the idea that people are motivated to view life as meaningful in order to have more comfort with our existence,” said study author Joseph Maffly-Kipp, a PhD candidate at The Ohio State University Medical Center. “Our ability as humans to think about how we will one day die can be deeply existentially distressing. According to the work of Ernest Becker, by viewing our own lives as inherently meaningful (i.e., having purpose and significance that extends beyond ourselves), we can sort of “transcend” our death and manage our potential existential anxiety.”
“In this study, my co-authors and I were exploring this idea by looking at how much people’s sense that their lives are meaningful was related to protection against the fear of death. We were specifically interested in whether people need to know and feel connected to themself for meaning to be protective in this way. Our findings supported this prediction—meaning in life was only associated with lower death anxiety when people felt connected to themselves.”
To investigate this topic, the researchers conducted five separate studies, involving a total of 2,001 participants. The participants completed questionnaires that assessed their levels of meaning in life, self-alienation, and death anxiety. These questionnaires asked them to rate their agreement with statements related to these concepts, such as “I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful” (meaning in life), “I feel as if I don’t know myself very well” (self-alienation), and “How concerned are you about death?” (death anxiety).
Across the five studies, there was a consistent finding. People who reported a greater sense of meaning in their lives tended to experience lower levels of death anxiety. In other words, if you feel that your life has purpose and significance, you’re likely to be less anxious about the idea of dying.
But the researchers found evidence that the relationship between meaning in life and death anxiety wasn’t the same for everyone. It hinged on self-alienation. For individuals with low levels of self-alienation, greater meaning in life was associated with lower death anxiety. However, for those with high levels of self-alienation, greater meaning in life was associated with heightened death anxiety.
“In order to find comfort/security in your existence, it may not be enough to view your life as meaningful in some abstract sense,” Maffly-Kipp told PsyPost. “Our research supports the idea that knowing/feeling connected to yourself on a fundamental level is also necessary. It may be the case that self-knowledge/connection allows people to more effectively integrate their sense of meaning into their identity and personal worldview, ultimately affording them existential security against potential anxiety about death.”
The findings reaffirm the idea that finding meaning can provide solace in the face of our existential fears but reminds us that this protection isn’t uniform. Our relationship with ourselves plays a significant role in how we cope with the inevitable question of mortality.
“We were surprised to find that, for people who felt alienated from themselves, meaning in life actually predicted higher death anxiety,” Maffly-Kipp explained. “We expected that it would simply be unrelated, suggesting a lack of protection. Our interpretations about this were fairly speculative, but it could be the case that knowing some sort of meaning is out there, but feeling unable to access it (due to self-alienation), actively creates existential distress.”
While these findings are compelling, it’s important to remember that the studies were correlational. This means we can’t definitively conclude causation or directionality from them. More research, especially experimental studies, is needed to explore the precise mechanisms at play.
Additionally, the participants in these studies were primarily from Western cultures. Cultural differences can significantly impact how we perceive meaning and cope with death anxiety. Therefore, these findings may not apply universally, and future studies should consider cultural diversity.
“Our research is purely correlational, and framed at the between-person level,” Maffly-Kipp said. “It’s currently unclear, for example, whether increasing a person’s sense of self-knowledge/connection could actively help them to become more existentially secure and less anxious about death.”
Despite these limitations, this research offers us a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche. It shows that finding meaning in life can indeed help us confront our fear of death but that this relationship is intricate and influenced by our sense of self.
“This research was conducted in collaboration with my colleagues at Texas A&M University, Chase Gause, Joshua A Hicks, and Matthew Vess,” Maffly-Kipp added.
The study, “When meaning in life protects against fear of death: The moderating role of self-alienation“, was published online on August 21, 2023.