Imagine you just got some very, very bad news. You don’t have much longer to live, maybe only a couple of years, and there’s nothing anyone–not you, not your doctor–can do about it.
Welcome to every day in the life of a very old person. We spend our entire lives dreading death and then, before we know it, it’s upon us. For a senior with any sense, this ought to spell terror or at least sorrow. But for many–not all, but many–it can mean the opposite. The way so many older people manage the psychic jujitsu of being contented with what their short-term future holds has long mystified scientists. “You’d think people would get more anxious as they age,” says Thomas Pyszczynski, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. But if you look at the research, older people have less anxiety and sadness and more overall satisfaction, he says.
Otto Rank, the Viennese psychologist and student of Sigmund Freud, once said the secret of not fearing death lay in the “voluntary affirmation of the obligatory.” How? Studies show there can be a powerful perspective shift later in life when we come to understand that what we’ve always thought of as ownership is really just a long-term lease. “A lot of our fear of death is about losing the things we’ve built up,” says Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England, and the author of Out of Darkness. “But elderly people let go of their attachment to these things, and in the process they let go of some of their fear.”
Seeing yourself as part of something that will outlive you can help as well. Some find their legacy in the children they’ve raised or the gardens they’ve planted. Others value families, religion and country more highly–the tribal groups that endure after we’re gone. But not all people find such late-life calm. Some become “bitterly disenfranchised,” says Sheldon Solomon, a professor of social psychology at Skidmore College, and grow disappointed with what they’ve done with the years. “They say if they could live again, they’d want to be Elvis or Lady Gaga. These are the ones who face death with a lot of fear.”
Of course death, even for the most transcendent among us, will never be a thing anticipated with joy. It is in some ways life’s great punch line–an annihilation of the self at the point where that self has gotten wiser and better than it’s ever been before. But without that knowledge of a looming finale, we may never have achieved such a high and fine state to begin with. The certainty of a journey’s end might make better travelers of us all.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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