A pointer to this from Australian Chris Barry came in my email this morning. Here is what Ken Vail and his co-authors found:
Contemplating death doesn't necessarily lead to morose despondency, fear, aggression or other negative behaviors, as previous research has suggested. Following a review of dozens of studies, University of Missouri researchers found that thoughts of mortality can lead to decreased militaristic attitudes, better health decisions, increased altruism and helpfulness, and reduced divorce rates.
Some of the specific effects were quite interesting -- everything from being more peaceful and cooperative to exercising more and quitting smoking. I especially liked this study described in the summary in ScienceDaily:
Even subconscious awareness of death can more influenced behavior. In one experiment, passers-by who had recently overheard conversations mentioning the value of helping were more likely to help strangers if they were walking within sight of cemeteries.
The researchers suggest one reason for such effects (based on something called terror management theory) is that "people deal with their awareness of mortality by upholding cultural beliefs and seeking to become part of something larger and more enduring than themselves, such as nations or religions."
So that is my happy thought for the day: Think about your death, it is good for you and those around you!
P.S. Here is the source: "When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management," published online on April 5, 2012, in Personality and Social Psychology Review.