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Creative Achievement Can Buffer Death Anxiety

Striving for, and sometimes reaching, one’s artistic goals can produce a major psychological benefit.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Thomas D/Flickr)

“I’m gonna live forever,” the budding artists of the movie Famedeclare in song. That brash proclamation isn’t just an exuberant burst of youthful ambition; it also reveals an underlying motivation for why some people choose to devote their lives to making art.

According to newly published research, recognition for one’s creative work can ease the angst triggered by reminders of our mortality.

“Creative achievement serves as an existential anxiety buffer, particularly among people for whom creativity constitutes a central part of their cultural worldview,” write University of Kent psychologists Rotem Perach and Arnaud Wisman. They report in the Journal of Creative Behavior that recognition for innovative accomplishments can serve as a form of “symbolic immortality.”

Their findings would come as no surprise to anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose 1973 book The Denial of Death inspired Terror Management Theory. According to this school of thought, many of our attitudes and behaviors are unconscious responses to our species’ unique understanding that our lives are finite.

For some, this knowledge inspires belief in an afterlife, or an emphasis on raising children (and thus passing down one’s genes). Others pledge allegiance to an institution such as a state or church, becoming a “valuable contributor to something larger, more meaningful, and longer-lasting than mere physical existence,” as Perach and Wisman explain.

In this context, the emotional value of making a creative contribution is obvious. Beethoven and Shakespeare live on, in a very real sense, hundreds of years after their deaths. But the notion that creating resonant art can ease death-related anxiety had, surprisingly, never before been tested.

After reviewing 12 previously published studies, which together “support the notion that creativity plays an important role in the management of existential concerns,” the researchers conducted their own experiment, which featured 108 undergraduate psychology students.

Participants began by completing a Creative Achievement Questionnaire, which “measures creative accomplishments in 10 domains (including visual arts, music, inventions) via self-report, while focusing on concrete public accomplishments, such as reviews in national publications.”

They went on to read a series of statements describing creative goals, and responded to each on a scale of one (“There is no chance I will set this goal for myself”) to five “(I definitely will set this goal for myself”). These included “You will produce a great creative work,” and “You will make an important contribution in the field of art or science.”

They then responded to 15 statements, labeling each as either true or false. For half of the participants, these assertions involved death anxiety (such as “I am very much afraid to die”); for the others, they described a fear of public speaking.

Finally, all were instructed to complete 25 word fragments, including six that could be completed as either death-related or non-death-related words. (One example was “Sk__l,” which could be completed as either “skill” or “skull.”) Researchers noted how often each participant went for the death-centric term.

Not surprisingly, those who were not creativity-oriented were more likely to form mortality-related words if they had previously filled out the fear-of-death questionnaire. (Death was, after all, on their minds.)

But, strikingly, the opposite was true among those who (a) had already experienced a significant creative achievement, and (b) expressed strong creative goals for the future. For them, exposure to the notion of death did not propel their thinking in a dark direction.

“Our findings suggest that those who pursue creativity, and produce significant creative contributions, may benefit from existential security in the face of death,” the researchers conclude.

Artists follow their muses for a myriad of reasons, of course. But this research suggests that, whatever their catalyst, doing creative work — and especially getting recognized for it — conveys an invaluable emotional benefit.

Woody Allen famously quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Fortunately for him, there is value in the first, more-viable option.