Designer Thinks About Death Every Hour: Why Do We Dwell on Dying?

man walking towards light
(Image credit: Death via Shutterstock)

Fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford said he thinks a lot about death. "Death is all I think about. There is not a day or really an hour that goes by that I don't think about death," he recently told Hollywood Reporter.

Many people probably share Ford's morbid tendencies, at least to some extent, Pelin Kesebir, an assistant scientist and psychologist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Live Science.

"To be preoccupied with death is very common and very natural," Kesebir said. This preoccupation can cause psychological problems, but it doesn't always do so, she said.

It's rare that people have a pathological fear of death, she said. Further, although "thoughts of death can be a source of anxiety and dread for someone," they can instead be "a source of immense clarity and wisdom for others," she said. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

However, psychologists in one school of thought — those who are "existentially oriented," or who study the way that concerns about the meaning and value of existence affect human behavior— say that the roots of many common psychological problems can be traced back to people's anxiety about death, Kesebir said. More specifically, these problems relate to anxiety about failing to live a good life, Kesebir said.

"People are usually not afraid of death per se, but of not having lived a worthwhile life," she said.

People may have frequent thoughts about death because of humans' sophisticated mental abilities, she said. Our minds "make us painfully aware of inevitable mortality, and this awareness clashes with our biologically wired desire for life," she said.

The result of this clash is a very understandable and normal anxiety, Kesebir said.

What to do about thoughts of death?

If people are bothered by thoughts of death, Kesebir suggested engaging in thought experiments about what it would be like to live forever and the problems immortality could bring. She noted that although such thought experiments can leave people intellectually convinced that death is actually a good and necessary thing, it may be difficult to feel that way, emotionally.

The best way "to accept death gracefully is living a good life — a life that is true to your values," she said. People who do this may stave off a fear of not having lived well.

It's also possible that a preoccupation with death can actually lead to a relief from anxiety about that final event, she said. Some people who have had near-death experiences "report an increased appreciation and zest for life, closer, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased belief in themselves, changed priorities," and other positive changes in their lives and outlooks, she said. [After Death: 8 Burial Alternatives That Are Going Mainstream]

In other words, after brushes with death, some people tend to live better approximations of what they consider to be good lives, which can in turn can relieve anxiety about death.

So according to Kesebir, thoughts of death, like Tom Ford's, are normal and might even help people to live better.

Original article on Live Science.

Ashley P. Taylor
Live Science Contributor

Ashley P. Taylor is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. As a science writer, she focuses on molecular biology and health, though she enjoys learning about experiments of all kinds. Ashley's work has appeared in Live Science, The New York Times blogs, The Scientist, Yale Medicine and Ashley studied biology at Oberlin College, worked in several labs and earned a master's degree in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.