- Mortality is highly anxiety-provoking, but some people seem to face death with greater serenity and composure than others.
- Research shows people with greater autonomy appear to have greater symbolic immortality.
- Living a more autonomous life may reduce existential dread and death anxiety.
Published in the August issue of Motivation and Emotion, a recent study by Horner and colleagues suggests “self-reported autonomy predicts extent of belief in symbolic immortality.” Note: Autonomy refers to the ability to express one’s authentic self and to experience one’s behavior as self-initiated and freely chosen. Symbolic immortality refers to the idea that after death, some symbolic extension of the self will live on or be remembered—such as through one’s family or socially recognized achievements.
Investigating autonomy and symbolic immortality
Sample: 1,185 (836 females); average age of 19 years old (range of 18 to 50 years); mostly Caucasian.
Methods: Online survey
Measures (sample items in parentheses):
- Self-esteem (I have high self-esteem.)
- Meaning in life (I understand my life’s meaning.)
- Autonomy (My decisions represent my most important values and feelings.)
- Symbolic immortality (After I die, my impact on the world will continue.)
Sample: 117 (84 females); average age of 20 years old (range of 18 to 50 years); mostly Caucasian.
Methods: Online study
Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two excerpts purportedly from interviews with older men. In reality, the excerpts were constructed similarly except that the target in the experimental (than control) condition reported living more autonomously. For instance, one excerpt read:
I never felt pressured to do lots of things, instead did things because I felt I wanted to, a lot of working toward success for things I really cared about….I just think looking back I feel like I had a lot of choice and control over what I did.
A second excerpt read:
I felt pressured to do lots of things, did things because I felt I had to, just a lot of working toward success for things I didn’t really care about….I feel like I didn’t have much choice or control over what I did.
So, the first interviewee had supposedly lived a more autonomous life than the second.
Having read the excerpts, participants were instructed to summarize what they had read in their own words.
The following variables were also measured:
- The target’s perceived symbolic immortality (How much do you think his impact on the world will continue after he dies?)
- The target’s life satisfaction (If the man could live his life over, he would change almost nothing.)
Sample: 175 (103 females); average age of 34 years old (range of 18 to 76 years); mostly Caucasian.
Methods: Same as the previous investigation except that the article now referred to a gender-neutral rather than male interviewee, and measures of perceived regret and self-esteem were also included.
As before, perceived autonomy, symbolic immortality, and life satisfaction were assessed.
Autonomy is positively related to symbolic immortality
Analysis of data indicated that feelings of personal choice and self-determination defend against death-related anxieties and reduce the need for attaining symbolic immortality.
Specifically, the analysis of data showed:
- Self-reported autonomy can predict the “extent of belief in symbolic immortality, which mediates the relationship between autonomy and meaning in life.”
- A person who has led a more autonomous life is perceived to have greater symbolic immortality.
- Autonomy appears to “contribute to symbolic immortality in ways that are separate from self-esteem.”
- The effects of “reading about an autonomous life and perceptions of the target individual’s satisfaction with life” might be mediated by “perceived symbolic immortality.”
So, greater perceptions of symbolic immortality may partly explain the correlation between autonomy and well-being.
In short, when people feel they can direct their own life, they find it easier to protect themselves from death anxiety and thus feel more capable of pursuing activities that help them grow and experience enhanced well-being.
Why is autonomy associated with symbolic immortality?
Self-determination theory suggests people have a natural desire to grow and develop their abilities, which is facilitated by the satisfaction of basic psychological needs (i.e. for competence, relatedness, autonomy).
At the same time, growth and assertion of one’s individuality are anxiety-provoking and may threaten one’s sense of meaning. Why? Because growth involves exploration of unfamiliar environments, exposure to novel information, and facing and overcoming new challenges.
Indeed, the process of asserting one’s individuality also increases awareness of personal vulnerability and of the eventuality of one’s own death.
Thus, autonomy, by providing a secure base and reducing existential anxiety, promotes the exploration of new experiences and facilitates personal growth.
Many existential thinkers (e.g., Viktor Frankl and Otto Rank) have emphasized the importance of personal choice, self-determination, and self-authorship in managing fear of death and developing a sense of meaning in life.
Furthermore, research from terror management theory has shown autonomy reduces death anxiety and strivings for symbolic immortality.
The findings reviewed here agree with the above, suggesting “self-reported autonomy predicts extent of belief in symbolic immortality, which mediates the relationship between autonomy and meaning in life.”
Seeking more autonomy
Autonomy is often misunderstood. For example, some people think being autonomous is the same as being indifferent, selfish, or narcissistic.
But as mentioned in the introduction, autonomy simply means experiencing one’s behavior as volitional, self-endorsed, and freely chosen.
To determine if your activities are autonomously motivated, ask yourself:
- Did I initiate these actions because I wanted to? Can I stop them if I want to?
- In general, do I often experience a sense of choice?
- Do most of my activities satisfy innate desires (e.g., to explore my environment, learn new things, or express myself)?
- How often do I engage in a behavior because I have to (e.g., due to obligations or fear of punishment)?
Greater autonomy is a goal worthy of pursuit because living a more autonomous life may increase happiness, enhance well-being, promote a sense of meaning and purpose, and, of course, reduce existential dread and death anxiety.
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