What Terror Management Theory Teaches Us About Christmas
Savor life and what really matters while you can.
Posted December 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Christmas can be a time of joy but it can also be one of great sadness.
- Terror management theory describes how we build our lives around illusions that keep us feeling safe.
- Routines and rituals are inventions that allow us to give meaning to our lives.
- We can choose to approach the festive period with the wisdom of appreciation.
At this time of year, for many of us, thoughts turn to Christmas. We may be looking forward to time off from work, being together with family and friends, and exchanging gifts. In the coming weeks, there will be the excitement of buying presents for our loved ones and listening to seasonal music in the stores. I am looking forward to all these things myself but I am also reminded of many losses in my life, and those family and friends who I will miss. There is a stark truth that I have learned about Christmas, each Christmas is the last such Christmas, in some way or other, as the subsequent year invariably brings change and loss.
Christmas is a time of joy, but it can also be one of great sadness.
Significant moments in our lives are often only seen in the rear mirror. They are rarely understood as significant at the time. I think of the last time I saw a friend before his tragic death, unaware that it was to be our last meeting. Everything in our lives will come to an end but rarely are we given notice. How much wiser it would be to heed such advice in advance.
We are all, always, precariously balanced between life and death, surrounded by reminders of mortality just one step away. But despite this, the profound lesson that mortality has to teach us is easily overwhelmed by day-to-day concerns. Existential psychologists have long talked about the sheer terror of facing mortality, our own and that of others; we build our lives around the illusion that we are invulnerable and immortal. We structure our lives around this illusion and use our mental energy to fend off the truth that bad things could happen at any minute. We have the opportunity to see beyond the illusory world we have built for ourselves.
Terror management theory (TMT) is a branch of psychology research developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and expanded in their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core, which proposes that death anxiety drives people to adopt a worldview that protects and defends them from facing reality. TMT says that when thoughts of death are in our awareness, we attempt to remove them from our consciousness by suppressing such thoughts, denying the threat, or engaging in behaviour to reduce our sense of vulnerability.
According to TMT, a lot of our life choices are actually distractions to help us deal with death anxiety. By the latter, I mean the dread and fear that people have of the specter of their own or another’s demise and the process of dying. Our routines and rituals, the ambitions and careers we pursue, are all inventions that allow us to give meaning to our lives in what is really a meaningless world, allowing us to believe we play an important role in some way. But they are essentially distractions from our death anxiety and the truth that it is a meaningless world.
TMT is not a new idea. It is based on earlier work by the sociologist Ernest Becker, who argued in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, that most human actions are a way to ignore our mortality. He wrote: "It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours." Is it possible that our lives—directed towards success and the pursuit of power and wealth—are actually, deep down, motivated by an unconscious equation that says success, power, and wealth are paths to invincibility, and that all we are doing is defending ourselves against death fears? The answer is yes.
For Becker, we need to suppress our awareness of our fragility, of the fact that we are always only a split second away from non-existence, otherwise we would simply go mad. And so, we develop cultures that make us feel invulnerable and eternal, what Becker called immortality systems. The various different religions all provide ideas about life after death that serve this purpose and are examples of immortality systems: those routines, rituals, and possessions that allow us to give a sense of meaning to our lives and avoid our death anxiety. We each find our own way to find this reassurance.
The rituals of Christmas, the consumerism associated with it, and the busyness of it all can serve this function if we let it; or we can approach the festive period differently, with the wisdom of appreciation that comes with knowing that in some way this will be the last such Christmas. If you do you will find yourself experiencing a deeper and more profound appreciation of all that you have in your life and the people in it. This might seem like a bleak message, but I do not intend it to be bleak, but as a reminder that in the midst of all the superficial trappings and consumerism of Christmas it can also be a time to savor life and what really matters to us while we can, and also to turn our thoughts to others who are already living with loss.
Adapted extract from my book, Think Like a Therapist. Six Life-changing Insights for Leading a Good Life
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Penguin.