Emotions Expressed by Dying People More Positive Than Expected

Woman sitting on bed with journalDeath may be a less frightening and more positive experience than many people anticipate, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. The study compared how people thought they would feel when dying to how people truly felt. In a second study, researchers also looked at the final words of death row inmates. In both scenarios, people expressed significantly more positive emotions than expected.

Could Death Be a Positive Experience?

Many people live their lives in fear of death. Using two different trials, the study sought to compare people’s expectations of death to the lived experiences of those near death.

In the first study, researchers asked a group of online participants to imagine being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Participants drafted blog posts about their feelings. The study then compared these blog posts to real blog posts authored by people diagnosed with terminal cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

With the assistance of an algorithm, trained coders, and online participants, researchers analyzed the blog content for words associated with fear, happiness, love, and similar emotions. People who imagined they were dying wrote more negative blog posts than those who were dying. Moreover, those near death wrote posts that contained more positive words than negative ones. The closer they were to death, the more positive terms they used.

This association persisted even when researchers controlled for the length and number of blog posts. This suggests people near death may express—and perhaps feel—more positive emotions than expected.

Emotion-Based Language in Last Words

A second study looked at the poetry by people on death row, as well as the hypothetical last words of online participants. When compared to inmates about to be killed, the hypothetical last words were more negative than the words of those facing imminent execution.

Terminally ill people and inmates about to be killed both focused on topics such as religion and family. The study’s authors say this focus on things that offer meaning in life suggests people facing death may seek meaning as a source of comfort.


Goranson, A., Ritter, R. S., Waytz, A., Norton, M. I., & Gray, K. (2017). Dying is unexpectedly positive. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797617701186

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  • Irina

    June 12th, 2017 at 2:09 PM

    We all thought that my grandmother would be so sad when she found out that her cancer was terminal, but instead she was joyful because for her that meant that she was moving on and would see loved ones that she had lost over the years again. She was very practical of course telling us what to do when any situation would arise, but she was so content and peaceful with death and dying that I think that overall that made it much easier for the rest of the family too.

  • Dirk

    June 13th, 2017 at 3:20 PM

    Well if someone has embraced what they know is the inevitable, then they have made their peace with it and are alright with leaving the earthly world behind.
    Perhaps they see it as something better for them is yet to come?

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