Menus Subscribe Search

Eastern Philosophy Eases Death Anxiety

• September 24, 2012 • 4:00 AM

New research finds East Asians are more likely than Westerners to react to reminders of their mortality with a renewed commitment to enjoy life.

Two guys walk into a bar. The bartender greets them with the sad news that a mutual acquaintance—a man of their age and social class—recently keeled over after suffering a massive heart attack.

Slightly shaken, they sit down and order drinks. But do they do so with a wistful smile, or a sullen grimace? Do they spend their evening sharing plans for the future, or trading snarky remarks until their unease morphs into anger targeted at some group they don’t like?

The answer, according to newly published research, may depend upon whether the watering hole is in Shanghai or Cheyenne. It turns out that East Asians and Westerners react very differently to reminders of our mortality—a finding that may point the way out of a destructive dynamic.

This study provides compelling evidence that the Eastern response to death is a renewed commitment to enjoying life. Awakened to the availability of this option, there’s no reason Westerners can’t adopt such an attitude, and reap the personal and societal benefits.

“The thought of death makes many people become more narrow-minded and nationalistic,” noted Harvard University psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams. “But less-defensive methods of coping with death are definitely possible, and some cultures make it easier than others to tap into these alternative ways.”

Ma-Kellams is both a cross-cultural psychologist and an expert in terror management theory, which examines the ways death anxiety impacts our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Several decades of TMT research has found reminders of our inevitable demise tend to evoke enthusiastic adherence to our religious and/or political beliefs, since these are the mechanisms that promise us either literal or symbolic immortality.

It’s a profound (if not universally accepted) theory, but most of its research has been done in the Western world. Ma-Kellams, who was born in China but raised in the U.S., wondered if East Asians would react differently to reminders of their own death.

“Mortality is so universal, but the ways we cope with mortality may be culturally specific,” she said, noting that East Asians are taught early on to look at the world in terms of yin and yang. From that philosophical perspective, life and death are inseparable; death would mean nothing without life, and vice-versa.

“From a Western point of view, we think of death as the annihilation of all we hold dear in our hearts,” she said. “But (from an Eastern perspective), when you are reminded of your own death, it can serve as a reminder that right now, you have a wonderful, glorious life to live, and you should make the most of it before it comes to an end.”

Ma-Kellams and her collaborator, Jim Blascovich, conducted five experiments at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which they describe in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Each featured one group of European Americans and a similarly sized group of East Asians, most first- or second-generation immigrants in the U.S.

The key experiment featured 28 European Americans and 30 East Asians. Both the Easterners and the Westerners were divided into two groups—one that wrote a short essay about their own death, and the other that wrote a short essay on dental pain.

After contemplating either their own mortality or dental pain, participants were asked to rate the appeal of various activities. Some, such as “meditate and pray” and “engage in a campus debate,” pointed to the desire to affirm their political or religious identity. Others, including reading a novel and watching a movie, suggested a desire to relax and enjoy life.

While the Westerners showed a slight preference for the identity-enhancing choices, “East Asians preferred to engage in enjoyable daily life activities,” the researchers report. Rather than turning to God, politics or some other source of meaning, they decided to simply have a good time.

Two of the experiments involved humor. In one, 29 European Americans and 26 East Asians wrote about either death or dental pain, then read a series of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips and rated how funny they found them.

East Asians who had been contemplating their own mortality found the strips funnier than those who had been thinking about dental pain. The reverse was true of Westerners.

In another experiment, 32 European Americans and 28 East Asians were asked to “write down the funniest joke they could think of” after contemplating either mortality or dental pain. Independent raters reported that while there was no significant difference between the two groups of European Americans, the East Asians wrote funnier material if they had just been thinking about their own deaths.

Take my life—please!

“These results make good sense to me,” said University of Colorado psychologist Thomas Pyszczynski, one of three scholars who laid down the foundation of terror management theory. “We and other people have done studies that showed very similar responses to mortality salience across diverse cultures, but that doesn’t in any way imply that there shouldn’t also be differences.

“I would think Westerners and Asians would indeed differ in some but not all aspects of how they deal with death. And I think this enriches our understanding of terror management processes, but is basically very consistent with the theory.”

Indeed, Ma-Kellams concludes that these experiments provide “additional support for terror management theory’s basic premise that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms to cope with the otherwise paralyzing fear of death.”

But they also suggest the automatic, unconscious way most Westerners respond to death reminders—to intensely identify with one’s nationality, ethnicity or belief system—isn’t the only way to go.

First, one must become aware of this dynamic. (Such a hardening of attitudes often leads to hostility towards people holding alternative beliefs, and can even increase support for war.) Then, one can choose another path—one that is well-trodden in the Far East.

“Part of the beauty of the human psyche is its incredible adaptiveness,” said Ma-Kellams. “I don’t think you have to be East Asian to cope with death in a different way.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.