Granted that no man has lived forever. But don’t we wish we could. We are not immortal but we sure as hell want to stretch out our time in this magnificent planet for as long as we can.
We know the tricks and the clues, the do’s and the don’ts. Do exercise, do eat fruits and vegetables, don’t drink excessively, don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t stress… The list goes on and on. And you know what, it works. I’ve seen it over and over. People who live by the rules live longer. Sure, there are no guarantees. There are exceptions because you know, sometimes bad luck takes over. But by and large we know what to do and what maximizes our chances of a long life.
I’m no different, I am all for immortality and the fountain the of youth. Hell I want to jump right in and swim in it till wild horses come drag me out. I mean, it feels good to be alive and be strong and be young. I want to hang out here forever! The body, after all, is a thing to enjoy and value. Why leave the party early? What is the rush to climb up that golden staircase?
So I try. I exercise. I try to eat well. I try to get enough sleep and I try not to flip out and get stressed. I’m doing alright with all of that. I’d give myself an eight out of ten. (actually, if I am going to be honest, its a five)
But in the quest for a long life, there is one element that is frequently overlooked and it may be one of the most crucial things we can do to stick around longer and healthier.
Minding the mind, it turns out, is as important as minding the body. And this is no surprise. We’ve always known that the mind and body are inextricably linked. In fact, some philosophers would argue that we are more mind than body because where the mind leads, the body follows.
Whether we are more mind or more body is irrelevant, what is important to note though is that more and more studies are arriving at the same conclusion; that having a healthy mind can help us have healthier bodies as we age. And even more significant are the findings that healthier minds mean longer lives.
A UCL-led research published in 2014 showed that people with a higher sense of purpose were 30% more likely to live longer than those who felt purposeless.
So basically, this team went out and interviewed a few thousand 65-year-olds and asked them to fill out a questionnaire that would indicate how they rate their sense of control, their worthiness and their sense of purpose in life. These scores were tabulated and people were divided into categories; from the highest state of well-being to the lowest.
Eight and a half years later, the researchers went back to check on these folks and they found that the mortality rate for the people with the lowest states of well being was the highest. In short, the fellows who had a strong purpose in life hung around longer than their lesser fulfilled peers.
So Nietzsche was right when he said, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,”
Meaningfulness means survival. Minding the mind means prolonging the body. And I think I understand the logic here. Having a sense of purpose creates happiness for being useful and being productive. Happiness is also proven to be a large factor in longevity. Happier people live longer. It is simple, purpose equals happiness, happiness equals long life.
Great then, we have our answer. Have a sense of purpose, be happy as you age and you won’t kick the bucket any time soon.
But there is an inescapable problem here. Our sense of purpose, by and large, reduces as we grow older. This is true for most people. We do most of our purposeful stuff when we’re young; we get educated, we marry, we build a career, we ascend in our profession, we make money, we raise children, we create a life. All of this happens when we are young and healthy and as we grow old, one by one, these purposes outgrow us. We retire, our kids move away, our usefulness reduces.
Are we all then condemned to helplessly age into an era of gloom and doom?
As important as it is to have a sense a purpose, it is equally important to pay attention to where that sense of purpose comes from. This has to begin while we are still young. If our sense of identity comes from “what we do” rather than “who we are”, we may find ourselves in a bit of a pickle as we age.
In the span of a lifetime we play many roles and find ourselves doing many different things. At some point we will stop doing these things either because we are no longer needed to do them, eg. mind our children, or because we are no longer able to do them, eg. we may reach an age when we need to retire from our job.
It is going to happen. Our world will outgrow us. But if we plan properly and live smartly, we will be just fine in our twilight years. We just need to ask ourselves, “when I am sixty or seventy or eighty, what will be my reason to get out of bed?”
If the answer to this question is “my children” or “my spouse” or “my work”, then we need to think harder. What should the answer be then?
Well, I am no authority but I have read enough on the subject to say that one or more of the following should keep you in good stead;
Have a passion or a hobby
Passion is the oxygen of the soul, pursue it with a vengeance. Your passion will give you reason to keep learning and improving. It will keep you challenged. It may even bring with it opportunities to travel and meet like-minded people. It will help you fill your time and will keep you happily occupied. Passion equals a sense of fulfilment and that in turn means purpose. Find your passion while you’re young, it is a worthwhile pursuit which will serve you well as you age.
Find your Rachael or Joey, or both
Never underestimate the power of good friendships. When I say friendship I don’t mean those of the surface variety. Please don’t count the ones you send a generic broadcast message to once a year on New Years Day. Close friendships consist of trust, honesty, empathy, commitment and unconditional support. Good friends are like wine, the older the better. And as you age together you’re sure to keep each other’s secrets safe because neither of you will remember any.
Contribute to the community
In your golden years, you will have racked up tons of experience at something. Accounts? Cooking? Banking? Administration? Make yourself useful. Go volunteer. In fact this should also start in our younger years. Help your local church, temple, library, school, orphanage. Find a way to contribute to society. Research shows we gain way more happiness in giving than we do in receiving. Its a win-win situation. We feel more fulfilled and society benefits too!
Start ticking stuff off your bucket list
William Ross said, “Every man dies – but not every man truly lives.” When you hit an age when the demands of work are no longer pressing and you have some time on your hands, don’t forget your dreams. Always wanted to take that trip to Africa and never had the time? Well hop on a plane and go do it! Spent your youth playing air guitar ? Well go sign up for a real course and serenade your spouse. Run that marathon, learn tennis, bungee jump, pick up some French, climb that mountain, learn that skill, get that PhD. Whatever it is you always wanted to do, spend time doing it.
Quality of life and quality of mind
There are hundreds if not thousands of studies that will tell you about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. These practices are scientifically proven to boost your immune system, increase positive emotions, decrease anxiety and stress, increase emotional intelligence and help regulate erratic behaviour. Meditation also INCREASES YOUR BRAIN MATTER. Its true! Our brains shrink with age and meditation or mindfulness can help reverse this process. Like everything else, meditation and mindfulness are skills that require practice. There are tons of apps that will guide you through the process. A few minutes a day of consistent effort is all you need to get the hang of it.
Man is a social animal and it is important to recognise the importance of staying connected with our fellow beings. Social interactions create a sense of belonging, camaraderie and relevance. We must maintain the bonds we create in our youth and carry them well into our older years. Neighbours, children, grandchildren, friends, this is the good stuff of life. This is the stuff that makes life worth living.
Me? I have a plan too. I’m never getting old. I may go get lipo, a facelift, a boob job from the best cosmetic surgeon in Beverley Hills (I know the rates, I’ve checked) and if he is good enough at what he does, I’d go in looking like an old bag and come out looking like Beyoncé. He’ll iron out my wrinkles and smooth out my cellulite. I’d biologically be seventy but physically I could fool you into buying me a drink at the bar. (Of course there is a chance I will resemble a waxwork from Madame Trussauds but you get my drift).
I’d trick you I’m telling you. Until I opened my mouth. That’s when I would tell you that I forgot where I parked my car, or maybe I will have forgotten if I even have a car. Maybe I’d repeat the same thing a few times or I’d start my sentences with “back in the day”. And as we’d get up from the bar stool to go up to your room for a night cap, you’d hear my bones creak.
Nah, that would never happen to me. Forget about it, I’m never growing up! And I’m living forever.