Benjamin Franklin once said that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” According to new research from the Harvard Business School, that certainty may prove to be the key—as we get closer to our final moments, our attitude is more positive than we think.


“We spend all of our lives fearing death and trying to avoid death,” Harvard Business School Behavioral Economist Michael Norton said in an interview with Boston Public Radio. “It’s the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to us, so of course we’re terrified of it, of course it makes us sad to think about. My collaborator, Kurt Gray, had this interesting idea that when we know people who are close to death, they don’t seem as scared or as sad about it as everyone surrounding them. Often, people find some kind of peace or meaning as they get close to death.”

Kurt and Norton decided to find data and test his hypothesis, to see if human beings had been making a mistake about mortality: “It’s not that anyone would choose to die right now, but as we get closer to it, maybe we’re built so that we make some peace with it, some meaning out of it,” Norton said. “It’s not that we’re happy about it, necessarily, but we’re not nearly as fearful and upset as we think we will be when we’re far away from the event.”

Michael Norton is a behavioral economist at Harvard Business School. To hear his full interview and calls from listeners, click on the audio link above.