Why No One Actually Wants to Live Forever

It would be really, really dull.

Are we having fun yet?

Courtesy Romka/Flickr

My career as a journalist began not at the Times of London, as I’d hoped, but rather as the editorial assistant (or dogsbody) at Pensions World magazine, a trade journal read by investment managers and HR professionals. My first assignment was to write an article on preretirement training. Training, as in a two-day course offered to people who were approaching retirement. I remember shaking my head in disbelief—people really needed to learn how to do nothing? How to hang out and chill? Retirement was just one long holiday, right? How hard could it be?

Well, actually, pretty hard, it turned out. Depression runs high among retirees, and not just because of reduced income—in fact, the baby boomers who have recently retired are living a life of relative luxury compared with those of us still a few decades away. No, the reason they get depressed is because when you’re retired, it is easy to feel like you have nothing to live for anymore, no purpose, nothing to get up for, no reason to even get dressed.

In a word, they are bored.

Now I have nothing against boredom per se; I think it’s an essential part of life, particularly when you’re a child. (My guiding parenting philosophy is to let my three children get bored a lot, hoping that it will stimulate their creativity—and also saving me the bother of schlepping them around from one activity to another.) But the retired suffer from a kind of crushing boredom akin to the one that faces the unemployed. It’s a hopeless monotony, the kind of tedium that necessitates little routines just to get you through the day: the walk to get the paper (giving you a reason to get up and dressed), doing the crossword (to keep your brain active), maybe visiting a cafe in the afternoon (for some company). As one retiree who spoke at the training course put it: “I thought my hobbies would expand to fill my days. But it turns out golf isn’t so much fun when it’s all there is. I used to long for more time to get my handicap down; now I’ve got all the time in the world and I barely play.”

And it was those words that stuck in my head when I wrote my first novel, The Declaration, a dystopian glimpse into a future where longevity drugs keep people living indefinitely. The real sting in the tale was that no one could have children, either, lest the world become overpopulated. But it was the idea of people just existing, getting through the day, that really made me want to write the book.

The truth is that humankind has been searching for eternal life since the first man or woman made the horrific discovery that they were going to die at some point. No one wants to stop existing, not when we know what a hugely important part we play in the world around us, when we know how insightful our thoughts are, how brilliant our wit. We cannot die—there must be some way of cheating (or, some might think, fixing) the system.

The hunt has been going on for thousands of years, and most of us join it in one way or another, whether through belief in an afterlife/reincarnation, starving ourselves, taking vitamins, or simply downing a glass of red wine every night and secretly hoping the cure for aging will be found while we’re still in our prime. And the fact of the matter is that things are moving in the right direction. We’re already living for decades more than our grandparents, and the things that I imagined in my novel—such as growing a new heart from stem cells—are seemingly just around the corner.

But no one ever asks the question that, to me at least, is fundamental. Do we really want to extend the human lifespan indefinitely? Would it really make us happy?

To which I believe the answer is no, and no.

What we forget when we focus on extending our lifespan as long as possible is that things make us happy because they are rare, finite, and therefore valuable and precious. Diamonds. Newborns. Laughter. Great first dates. Great third dates. Sunshine. (I live in London. Trust me, sunshine is very rare and very finite.) Make these things available to everyone all the time, and they would lose their glow, become mundane.

Imagine you were given an extra week’s vacation. You would probably be delighted. You’d make plans and do things you’d been wanting to do for a while—jobs around the house, day trips, catching up with friends. But what if you were given a year off? Would you make as much of every week? I doubt it. You’d procrastinate, because there would be no urgency, no need to get on with anything quickly. You might enjoy the year, but, comparatively, nowhere near as much as the week.

Not convinced? What if I were to hand you $100, or $1,000 or even $1 million right now? The excitement, the possibilities, the shopping … I suspect you’d be delighted (and I hope you’d be grateful). But what if I were to give you $1 million every day for the rest of your life? Every single day, another $1 million. To start with, you’d probably be over the moon, would buy houses, cars, yachts, islands. But eventually you would tire of the money. It would lose its meaning, perhaps even become a chore. It would certainly never give you as much happiness as that first $1 million. Or even the first $100.

The truth is, we humans like deadlines, boundaries. We get carried away on a night out because we know the sun will come up eventually and it will be over; in the meantime, we want to make the most of every second. We feel a sense of urgency about our careers, our love lives, our children, our friends, because we know that nothing lasts forever, that we have to grab opportunities, make the most of them, live in the moment, never miss a minute. It’s what gives everything meaning, what drives us on.

But if everything lasted forever, though, we could miss a whole year of minutes and it wouldn’t matter. There would be no point starting anything today when it could so easily be put off until tomorrow. Or next decade. Or the decade after that. Perhaps that’s one reason why a recent survey found that most Americans would rather live to 79–100, rather than 120 or beyond.

If we were to live forever, even if we lived in perfect health every day of our lives, it wouldn’t be long, in my view at least, before we were all lying in bed in the morning wondering why we should bother to get up and get dressed.

Of course I’ve got an article somewhere in my loft on preretirement training that might help. But then again, I’d have to spend some time searching for it. Might take me a while …