the gift of the bounded future

By way of swag, everyone attending last week’s five-day Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Academy on “Covering the myths and realities of aging in America” received a canvas tote packed with print hand-outs. I was struck by a juxtaposition between two that I read the first night. One was an article in Science magazine by Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, called “The Influence of a Sense of Time on Human Development.” The other was the first chapter of Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality by prize-winning science writer and Columbia journalism professor Jonathan Weiner.  

Carstensen is a psychologist whose research shows that humans always set goals in a temporal context, and that those timelines change as a function of mortality. Those who perceive their time as short typically attach greater importance to finding emotional meaning and satisfaction in life and invest fewer resources into gathering information and expanding horizons. An example she gives in an article in the Economist about happiness across the lifespan is that “young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.” 

Interestingly, the effect isn’t inherently linked to chronological age. Younger people with terminal illnesses seem to view their social world as very old people do (prioritizing a small and intimate circle), while older people’s choices more closely resemble those of younger ones when offered a miracle drug that will greatly extend their lifespans. This finding has helped discredit “disengagement theory,” which posited that older people naturally withdraw from society in innate preparation for death. Instead, it turns out that they’re deepening relationships with those already dear to them, and focusing on activities they know to be satisfying. As Carstensen put it at the seminar, “A lot of what we thought was a unidirectional, experienced-based change associated with aging in some biological way turns out to be much more malleable.” 

If immortality were to land within our grasp, the effect would be quite the opposite, as Weiner observes in his book about the radical life extension movement. Quoting Dr. Johnson’s aphorism, “’Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,’” Wiener continues, “And when we are told that the sentence of death under which we all live may be lifted, it makes our minds expand wonderfully, as if we have lived all our lives in a state of compression . . . drawn down by gravity.” Sounds great, right? Not to mention intuitively appealing, however farfetched. (Far from touting the promise of immortality, Wiener remains trenchantly skeptical.)  How, I wondered, did that emotional state compare to the one generated by the “closing in” described by the psychologist?

At the seminar Wiener interviewed Carstensen across a formica table only a few feet in front of me. She described the longevity boom — the increase in the world’s population of healthy, well-educated, emotionally stable adults — as “an extraordinary opportunity to solve almost all of our problems.” For Wiener this brought to mind a parakeet he’d had as a kid.  Aware of the dimensions of its cage, the bird would scrunch down if lifted upward on a finger.  “It seems to me that all of us of a certain age sense ourselves beginning to scrunch in some psychological way,” he observed. “You’re urging us to recognize that the cage, the space above us, has changed. That we don’t have to scrunch the way we had been.” 

That’s biology, Carstensen countered gently. “People, and your bird, behave differently when constraints are closed-ended versus open-ended.” She believes the “scrunching down” to be adaptive, and therefore a positive behavior. “We need to prepare deeply and to focus [when time grows short],” she said. “That’s when some people do their best work and have their best relationships. It would be bad for old people to be like young people, and vice versa. It’s adapting to the constraints that we all live with as humans.” 

Her argument pleased me, partly because I’ve always found the “science” of life extension problematic and the ethics even more so.  I loved the apparent paradox that the “secret of a happy old age” would be a function not of life’s possibilities but of the lack thereof. The exchange also provoked me to ask the question that had been gnawing at me for some time:  “Do you think your research helps explain why so many studies show that people are happiest at the beginning and ends of their lives?

It was such a luxury to be able to pose the question to Carstensen in the flesh, and I got a great answer:  “Yes, and I can do you one better,” she responded with a smile. “Both old age and childhood are when people are most able to really live in the present.  Little kids don’t have the cognitive abilities to think into the long-term future. They can just be splashing in a puddle. Their parents can’t, because they have to get dinner ready and clean up the mud. But their grandparents can, because they know that time is running out. Living in the present is very good for you,” she concluded.  It’s why older people are in better mental health than young or middle-aged ones, “which surprises a lot of people.”  

That paradox I’d been chasing turns out not to be one after all. The overarching fact is that life is short. Different events impart that message, perhaps a spiritual awakening, or a fearsome diagnosis, or hitting 60 or 70 or 80. Aging seems to drive it home to most of us, but it’s hardly an insight reserved for late life. Arguably it’s the middle-aged, those who scrabble in the trough of the “U-shaped happiness curve,” who’d stand to benefit the most. God knows it’s elusive. In my goal-oriented brain, “live in the moment” swiftly transmogrifies into “seize the day”: print out that bucket list and get cracking!  My bucket list is only going to get longer, even as my days grow fewer. I’m not at the point where that makes me happy, but I can sure work on not letting it make me sad. 

At the first Age Boom Academy I attended, in 2008, I was struck by a comment made by Columbia journalism professor Dick Wald about the challenge of galvanizing a national conversation around longevity-related issues. “How do you do something that changes a cultural attitude?” he asked rhetorically.  “Oddly enough, this is a philosophical question, not a pragmatic question: of what good to you is the thing itself. Why is being older good for you? What can age teach you about the meaning of life? Answer that and you will have the lever.” Carstensen’s brandishing the lever. So is Karl Pillemer of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. More about his research soon.

One thought on “the gift of the bounded future

  1. Ashton, I love this little (i say by virtue of number of words, not ideas) essay! Such a grand and juicy question you asked and Carstensen answered – while smiling – which, to me, means it must be a favorite idea to deliver…!

    The idea that we are not disengaging with our larger world but setting limits on it, digging deeper into what (and who) matters… ha! Take that you who see us as fading… in fact, we are slipping from your hurried view.  And, the notion that we may be ‘in the moment’ even as we have (out)lived the experience of that hurried, distracted, middle age (which puddle-happy children do not yet know)…this, too, is encouraging.
    Having spent the past days researching the dire straits of aging as i write a paper for class (and writing a paper for class is NOT what 59 year old people should spend a Saturday afternoon doing)… I am refreshed by your essay. Thank you.

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