The Happy Feeling Some People Experience Right Before Death

Feelings of fear often arise when we think about death. According to a 2019 survey published by Statista, out of more than 1,200 participants, 11% reported feeling "very afraid" of death. Age, spiritual beliefs, health status, and how much social support one has in their lives are all factors that may potentially influence to what degree a person fears death (via the Journals of Gerontology). A severe or debilitating apprehension around death or dying, however, is known as a type of anxiety disorder called thanatophobia, explains the Cleveland Clinic.

During our final moments, it's logical to think that we might be struck with an overwhelming wave of fear. Yet some research suggests that our body may instead put us in a state of euphoria. The reason as to why this occurs appears to be multi-faceted, with nutritional intake, brain wave activity, and the release of certain chemicals in the brain before death all being potential contributing factors.

How metabolism changes and brain wave activity may produce happy feelings near death

It is not uncommon for people at the end of life to voluntarily reduce their nutritional intake or abstain from eating and drinking altogether, reports the Hospice Foundation of America. While this may worry loved ones, experts explain that these dying individuals don't report feeling hungry or thirsty. Rather than experiencing discomfort, the dying person may instead experience a feeling of calm or euphoria as a result of metabolism changes in response to the lack of food and liquid.

Alternatively, researchers from a 2013 animal study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that rats placed in a near-death state through experimental cardiac arrest immediately experienced a spike in gamma brain wave activity. Gamma brain waves are associated with a heightened state of arousal, cognition, and focus, explains WebMD. High levels of gamma wave activity have also been linked with increased feelings of happiness and receptivity.

Potential chemical reactions in the brain during the dying process

The release of hormones that takes place in the brain might also explain why a dying person may feel a sense of happiness wash over them in their final moments before death. In a 2011 study published in Neuroscience Letters, researchers found that serotonin levels in rats tripled during the dying process. Dubbed the "feel good" hormone, Cleveland Clinic experts explain that having healthy levels of serotonin promotes feelings of calm and happiness.

Similar to the 2013 PNAS study, researchers from a 2019 study published in Scientific Reports found that rats put into a near-death state through experimental cardiac arrest displayed a surge of DMT levels in the brain. WebMD explains that DMT is a naturally occurring compound in certain plants or animals that some people take as a drug for its hallucinogenic and euphoric effects. While it has been suggested that the pineal gland may potentially be responsible for DMT secretions in rat brains, whether or not the human pineal gland also produces DMT has not been definitively determined (via Healthline). Therefore, experts suggest taking such findings with a grain of salt, as there is not yet strong enough evidence to support these claims.