Last year, we delved into the psychology of New Year’s resolutions, describing what little research has been done on why and how people make New Year’s resolutions.

So here’s the good news from this year’s research tidbit — if you’re getting old and thinking that death is on your door, the week is yours to live and enjoy. Chances are good that you’ll make it to New Year’s day.

Shimizu & Pelham (2008) looked at death records for millions of people using Social Security Death Index (SSDI) records. This database contains more than 70 million records of people who died in the U.S. in the past 65 years, according to the researchers. They wanted to determine whether people died more often before a major holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day) or event (the person’s birthday), compared to after the holiday or event.

In effect, the researchers were asking whether people could will themselves to live a few more days, weeks or months to reach one of these milestones. Can the mind overcome the body’s physical limitations?

For all four of these important ceremonial events, people were more likely to die just after rather than just before the events. In addition, consistent with the idea that Christmas and Thanksgiving are important social events that people wish to experience in their entirety, people were particularly unlikely to die on these exact dates.

In contrast, people were more likely than usual to die on New Year’s Day and on their birthdays, suggesting that these events constitute milestones that people wish to reach before giving up on life.

People like to enjoy the social holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, so they die more often after the actual holiday. The social component of New Year’s is actually the night before, so that too is enjoyed before one’s death. The researchers call New Year’s Day and one’s birthday “ceremonial finish lines.” In your mind, as you approach death, you’ve gotten to the finish line, so now it’s okay to die. (As a side note, the researchers found a pronounced death effect for January 1, 2000, the dawning of the new millennium. Apparently that was a really big finish line for many.)

Taken together, the […] analyses suggest that the desire to live is the key variable that links ceremonial events to [death].

[…E]ffects for both Christmas and the birthday were much stronger for children than for adults.

Why the difference between children and adults when it comes to “living for” Christmas or one’s birthday? The researchers suggest that it’s because children don’t have the usual stress associated with these events — bills at Christmas time, and the stress of getting older on one’s birthday (I’d say after age 30, birthdays start to get more stressful than fun, but might revert back to fun at some later age).

So what it seems to come down to is something impossibly simple — the will to live. We have it in us to literally extend our lives, if just for a few weeks or months, to reach some significant milestone that holds special meaning for us. There is no clearer indication of the mind’s power over the body than this chunk of seemingly-useless statistical death data. We can be motivated to prolong our lives.

But this has ramifications for more than just our deaths. It can also be important for our life and continuing health:

[Previous researchers] found that higher levels of exercise self-efficacy among male cardiac patients predicted improvements in their activity levels, depressive symptoms, and cooperation with health care professionals.

When people believe that they can attain a specific goal, they are more likely to regulate their behavior in a productive, healthy fashion. Along these lines, we speculate that those people can prolong their lives by doing things as simple as eating properly.

The will to live — and the will to survive something like a cancer diagnosis — is strong if you have the right mindset and a positive attitude. This research — which confirms earlier, similar findings — suggests that people have a powerful will to live. And that will to live can literally prevent one’s death, at least until they’ve reached some ceremonial milestone in their life.

Read last year’s article: The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions


Shimizu, M. & Pelham, B.W. (2008). Postponing a date with the Grim Reaper: Ceremonial events and mortality. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30(1), 36-45.