Seeing life through a holistic lens is common in Eastern cultures. When people believe there is a yin and yang, good and bad, light and dark, in every situation in life, they view various circumstances from that perspective. In this way, a negative event, such as a life-threatening illness, could be seen as an opportunity to savor every moment of existence. Being faced with mortality can cause people to shift their priorities and approach life in a way they never have before. But whether they take mortality salience (MS) as a cue to embrace or avoid life could depend on their culture of origin.
Christine Ma-Kellams of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University recently led a study to examine how culture affects life perspectives in a sample of East Asian and Western European adults. The participants completed a series of experiments that allowed them to choose engagement in enjoyable activities or neutral ones. They were also provided with the chance to use positive behaviors, such as humor and laughter, or neutral ones. Finally, the participants were given one final chance to choose positive or neutral activities in the face of MS after being primed with holistic cues.
The results revealed that the East Asian participants chose positive and enjoyable activities and behaviors far more than the European participants. Specifically, they were more likely to look at their situation from a positive perspective and were more motivated to participate in things that brought joy, such as reading or watching movies. They also responded with higher levels of humor and positivity than the European participants. However, after the Europeans were primed with holistic cues, they too demonstrated higher levels of life-affirming engagement.
These findings suggest that thinking about one’s mortality is not necessarily a bad thing. Ma-Kellams believes that when individuals view death as the yin to the yang of life, the overall effect on their life perspective is less threatening. “Consequently, thoughts about death result in greater engagement in and enjoyment of life for holistic thinkers,” she said. Future work should examine how other factors, such as spirituality and religiosity, affect life approach in the context of MS.
Ma-Kellams, Christine, and Jim Blascovich. Enjoying life in the face of death: East-West differences in responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.5 (2012): 773-86. Print.
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