March 13, 2001 -- Maybe it is better to burn out than to fade away.
A new study finds most people believe living more years can make for an inferior life, even if the extra years are mildly pleasant. Put another way: It doesn't matter how long you live, but rather how exciting your life is when you happen to die.
The report, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, identifies what the authors call the "James Dean Effect" — the belief that a wonderful life that ends abruptly near the moment of peak fulfillment is actually more desirable than an equally wonderful life that has additional mildly pleasant years.
"People perceive life as more positive if it ends on a high note," wrote the authors of the study, Edward Diener, a University of Illinois psychology professor who has written extensively about happiness, and two colleagues, Derrick Wirtz and Shigehiro Oishi.
The effect isn't absolute, however. Researchers found that enough mildly pleasant extra years eventually outweigh the perceived benefits of a short, wonderful life.
Old and Young Responded Alike
Diener and his colleagues used both college students and middle-aged participants, and found similar results with both groups. In all, 204 people participated in the study: 149 undergraduates, and 55 adults aged 34 to 63. They were given different short vignettes describing a woman's life and asked to rate how desirable it was on a scale from 1 to 9, with 9 representing the "most desirable or happy life one can imagine." (See sidebar below.)
In the versions in which the woman died sooner, the average response was 6.13. When she died later, with extra years of slightly happy life, the average response was 5.43.
The study found no difference in participants' responses whether the character in the vignette died at 30 or 60.
Harry Triandis, another psychology professor at the University of Illinois who studies happiness, praised the work of the study's main author, but also cautioned against calling any one survey definitive.
"The wording is very crucial," he noted. "If you ask a question one way you get one answer, if you ask it another way, you get a different answer."
‘The James Dean Effect’ — Short but Sweet
By choosing the term "James Dean Effect," Diener and his fellow authors singled out the life of the young 1950s movie star as emblematic.
Dean is the archetype of the sort of short, intense and wildly successful life that participants in the study rated highly.
The 24-year-old actor died in a car crash in 1955, just as his career had begun to soar.
A Related Effect in Unhappy Lives
The study also asked people to rate various difficult, unhappy lives, and found a related effect.
Common sense might suggest that living additional unhappy years would not make a life more desirable, but researchers found the opposite to be true in some cases.
A miserable life that ended abruptly was rated less desirable to a miserable life with additional "mildly unpleasant" years.
That suggests, the authors wrote, "the end of life is of unique importance."