Dying is a happier experience than most people imagine

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Dying is a more positive experience than most people imagine, psychologists have claimed.

A recent YouGov survey found 68 per cent of people in Britain fear death – but according to the authors of new study, dying is “less sad and terrifying – and happier – than you think”.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina analysed blogs written by terminally ill patients and last words of prisoners on death row.

The emotions expressed in the accounts were not lonely and anxious but in fact “filled with love, social connection, and meaning”, they said.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, compared the real words of the dying to similar compositions by volunteers asked to imagine they only had a few months to live.

Assistant professor Kurt Gray and his colleagues used algorithms to scan both groups of blog posts for words associated with positive and negative emotions.

They found that as death approached, the words used by the dying became more positive in emotional tone, with an increased focus on meaningful topics such as family and religion.

“When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror,” said Dr Gray. “Humans are incredibly adaptive – both physically and emotionally – and we go about our daily lives whether we’re dying or not.

“In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning.”

The patients in the study had terminal cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), while the prisoners were facing a death sentence in Texas, with their testimonies collected by the US Department of Justice.

Blogs examined in the research had to have at least 10 posts written over three months.

The number of entries and overall word count was taken into account by the scientists to ensure the increase in words associated with positive emotions was not simply due to writing over time.

One post included in the study said: “All water and nutrition now through gravity bags – drip, drip, drip. Need assistance for every movement. Surrounded here by so much love and care I feel I am ready for the next step.

“I have no regrets at all – I have had a full life, touched and been touched by such wonderful family and friends. So if there is to be a final lesson for me it is that love is the ultimate gift – love and honesty.”

An overwhelming fear of death can develop into a phobia known as thanatophobia, or “death anxiety”.

There were 529,655 registered deaths in England and Wales in 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is the leading cause of death in England and Wales, claiming more than 61,000 lives – 11.6 per cent of recorded deaths.

In 2015, around twice as many women than men died of the brain condition, which mainly affects people over 65.

Coronary heart disease – the number one cause of death worldwide – was responsible for 11.5 per cent of deaths registered in 2015 and is still the leading cause of death for men.