What motivates us most in life is fear of death


According to Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Denial of Death” (1973), the knowledge that we as individuals are fated to die is a uniquely human problem, one that can lead to existential despair, mental illness, and paralysis of the will. As a result, he claims, we humans have evolved different methods to repress our fear of mortality.

Death denial takes many ritualistic social forms. There is the belief in an afterlife, found in most religions, while in secular societies, we commit ourselves to political causes or national identities that will live on after we die. We have children so we can pass on our DNA, or attempt to create great works of art or to make scientific discoveries that we hope will guarantee us symbolic immortality. The belief in “Progress” has the same death-defying function as heaven does in monotheistic religions, being a guarantor that history is not meaningless and that our lives were “for something.”

These are all different, ritualized immortality narratives that save us from being paralyzed in fear before the prospect of our own deaths.

Many of us intuit that Becker’s theory is correct, that what motivates us most in life is not some “Will to Power” (Nietzsche) or the drives towards sex and death (Eros & Thanatos in Freud) but fear of death itself.