Hi everyone Nicolas here for this fifth episode in our series about death and particularly about the eradication of human aging. This time we’ll be taking apart the myth which would have us believe that it is better to die all wrinkled and senile at 90 rather than risk boredom in an athlete's body and a student’s brain for 500 years.
Here we have our first personal objection. An objection mostly based on a fear which at first glance seems rather logical since we all have to deal with it somewhat regularly: that of being bored. The idea is that we already do get bored even as we haven’t seen or done everything yet, and therefore we will get bored all the more as we will have, 200, 500 or 1000 years from now, seen and done everything.
Except that before seeing or doing everything we have time. Like a lot of time. An.. infinite time in fact. First because the number of interesting things to do is already innumerable today. Given a bit of curiosity, there are thousands of unique places to visit, billions of jokes to hear, at least as many stupidities, hundreds of sports and thousands of activities to master, millions of films books podcasts and YouTube videos to digest and supposedly a hundred or so sex positions to investigate and, for the most adventurous among us, many more partners with whom to.
Right obviously we’re not interested in everything all the time but I think relatively few among us leave this world happy to have been able to check everything off their list. Just with what we have right now on the table today, it’s not 100 but at least 500 years that the average idle bum needs to do it all. And even then it doesn’t matter a whole lot because opportunities keep growing.
If we should make it to the end of the list by one’s bicentennial birthday, we would but need to add all the things that will have been invented, discovered, made possible or just changed.. and there we go, enough to go on for another hundred years. And after those 100 years, same again, we have another century or so worth of new stuff to see and do. And so on without ever reaching the end.
In fact as if this flood of growing opportunities were not enough, we simply have to realize that, as the proverb goes, we can’t step into the same river twice. The environment is perpetually evolving and it’s difficult to see how one could grow bored of something, the world in this case, that never remains the same very long.
No the problem is not one of lacking interesting things to do, the problem is that of being pessimistic and lacking motivation. And that is not a problem that comes with time but one of character and circumstances.. which can come tomorrow or 5000 years from now and last from a few minutes to years. It is unfortunately a big issue for some people, and something to take very seriously, but nonetheless one which fundamentally has no connection with the absence or presence of an aging process or with lifespan. Important, very important even, but not today’s topic.
In any case it doesn’t matter. Whether we see the world as an ocean of experiences or a pool, the truth is that both are the same. The pool, oddly enough but happily enough, is not worse than the ocean. Yes, with Man what matters is not infinite variety, but sufficient variety. Just like beer and wine, no need to fill past the edge of the glass.
Man is a creature which, like all others actually, needs some middle ground between routine and novelty. Too much routine and other more adventurous organisms might find something incredible giving them some decisive advantage. But too much novelty and we risk wasting time and resources on a bunch of things which prove to be useless.
When the goal is to have more babies than the neighbor, it’s nice to go check every now and again if the mammoth might not be more abundant in the next valley, but we shouldn’t neglect the lake we regularly see some at. Spending our time exploring distant valleys just in case maybe, we risk replacing a few real mammoths with many hypothetical ones. Madam homo sapiens might not be impressed and there might be fewer babies.
Evolution then generally pushes us to be a bit adventurous but not too much. To often do the same thing that works but also to try new stuff sometimes that will be maybe better, maybe not. And so to be rather satisfied with our routine that works ok, yet sprinkled with a bit a boredom to nudge us to move our asses and try to make it better. Basically Man was shaped to be cool with a large dose of always the same with a bit of completely new on the side. Not everyone is exactly the same of course but this is the general tendency.
So what does that mean for aging, or rather for the absence of aging and growing lifespans? Well I think it means that we do not necessarily need to invent new sports or to explore new planets. Why not, but it isn’t necessary. Thankfully, we have evolved in an environment relatively poor in new experiences, which conditioned us to be happy with relatively little.
Nobody gets bored with eating everyday three times a day (which is not something I necessarily recommend but that’s a different story), changing ingredients every so often. We don’t grow bored watching TV, YouTube or listening to radio and podcasts every day. The content changes a bit maybe but the activity is fundamentally the same, without it bothering us. And we rarely complain that we make love too often. Or that means you’ve gone pro.
The most primal activities are generally the most enjoyable, drinking, eating, making love, basking in the sun, chatting among friends.. and so on.. and they are also the most frequent and least susceptible to boredom. Less beastly activities do not necessarily enjoy this immunity but all it takes is to vary things a bit and modulate the frequency.
And indeed, in this battle against boredom, the other ally we seldom mention positively is our rather poor memory. Not being able to recite by heart the lyrics of all the songs we’ve heard only once in our life, it may not seem like it, but actually it’s a huge blessing. Some people have a photographic memory, they can draw everything they’ve seen even just once. Others a perfect episodic memory, they can recall everything they have ever done in their life. And these people are actually more handicapped than anything else.
Fortunately for the rest of us, we rather easily forget the face of people we cross in the street, and even sometimes the name of people we’ve been invited to see (which is a bit more problematic). But thanks to this siever of a memory, we can easily forget that today’s interesting conversation.. well, we already had it five years ago. A vague deja vu perhaps but not much more, not enough to distract from enjoying the moment. We can appreciate re-watching an old movie we remember only the plot lines of and the fact that we liked it. We can revisit the same places, replay the same games, see the same people and generally speaking appreciate anew that which we have mostly forgotten.
Of course we could say that what is seen for the first time will be felt more strongly. And it is often the case, because quite often we don’t wait until we have completely forgotten about it before revisiting it. But it is also often false. We can absolutely enjoy the same movie, often for different reasons, and sometimes even more, upon watching it for the second time. There are also numerous activities which become more enjoyable as we gain mastery of them. We may forget nine tenth of a snowboard initiation day 4 years ago yet appreciate the motor reflexes which lingered.
There are no rules. It’s sometimes better the first time around and sometimes not. But having an imperfect memory allows for us to be gently tricked into satisfying our small need for novelty with what we have already seen and done. And that’s really cool because that means we already have everything we need to be happy. The thing is to learn to manage intervals to have a good mix of routine and fake new.
Man has evolved to remain relatively satisfied in his cave and surrounding savannah. He never needed constant change. This is a false problem to which future bicentenarians will no more be confronted than today’s fifty somethings. The true problems of boredom are biological decrepitude and social alienation. Two things which do dramatically reduce our options but which the absence of an aging process should largely resolve.
We are no more susceptible to boredom at 50 than we are so at 25, et no more at 75 than at 50. All the more if, without biological deterioration, we have at 75 the same abilities and opportunities than at 50. And even when it’s not the case, when the aging process and decrepitude as it exists today has handicapped our septuagenarian significatively, habituation is a powerful thing which comes to our aid.
The hedonic treadmill as it is called in psychology ensures that Man adapts to his new circumstances after a while to get back to his average natural satisfaction level. Some are more easily satisfied than others, but this average satisfaction varies little despite the happy and sad accidents of life. We get used to our new circumstances and it takes a lot to durably impact our happiness or sadness. Those who are bored now have their work cut out for them, with or without aging.. and others only need but keep going like now, with or without aging.
Often, after having shown that boredom won’t be a real issue since we can easily satisfy ourselves with what we already have, the next objection is about the worth of those experiences, and therefore the worth of the life of a human who would no longer age. The objection goes like this: if people are fine with doing the same things in the long term, why bother, what is the value of such a stagnating life?
Of course put this way it sounds rather bad and we instinctively want to sympathize with the obvious conclusion of such a question. Except that of course I could easily reformulate it and ask: if people satisfy all their needs, why keep going, what is the worth of a generally satisfied life? Already the tone is different. I could even change the question some more to bring out the answer I want: when people are happy, should they change, stop? If everything’s fine it kind of means that nothing’s wrong. Doing the same things again if it works, is perfectly legitimate.
Some could refuse happiness as the criteria behind evaluating what works. It’s an interesting philosophical objection of course, but when doing practical philosophy, that is to say the kind that brings answers to live better, this is an objection which quickly reveals itself absurd. The value of things is measured by what they add or remove from the hedonic balance of living beings. That which makes happier in the long term has a positive value and that which does the opposite has a.. negative value of course. I understand that not everyone does accept this idea and I have planned a whole episode on that, taking into account among other things the personal, social, and conflictual aspects. For now I encourage those listening to ask themselves how else things could be evaluated, and without an alternative, to accept happiness for now.
And so it doesn’t matter if we watch Star Wars or Gone with the wind (trying to be inclusive here) for the tenth time in 200 years. What matters is not to watch a movie, new or not, but to have a positive experience. That is the standard of judgement. One who salivates at the idea of eating another steak does not need to go try a grasshopper instead. Novelty matters only insofar as it brings more happiness. If it doesn’t, it is useless, it has no intrinsic value. And so if going back to your childhood town for the first time in 50 years thrills you just as much as visiting Australia for the first time, then this is what you should do if it’s easier. If not then direction Kangarooland.
Human beings have a sufficiently poor memory to appreciate in a new light what we have already seen and done. And no need to feel guilty for supposedly doing the same things over and over again, since the value of those things does not depend on their novelty but on their emotional impact on our hedonic balance. If A makes for greater happiness, in the long term, then we should prefer A to B. That one is new and the other old news makes no difference.
I am of course not saying that we should never try anything new. I’m not even seeing that novelty is never better than routine. I am merely saying that our need for novelty is one not that great and two amply satisfied by what we’ve already seen, but also more or less forgotten. Which implies that, even imagining a stagnating world, we actually already have all we need to be happy for 20, 50, 100 or even 500 years.
And of course a world without aging is not a stagnating world. Far from it. Not only will changes be enormous and opportunities multiplied, but in any case, to avoid boredom, all of it is perfectly unnecessary. We are already well equipped.
We have just seen today that tomorrow’s world is also undergoing perpetual change, offering an already incalculable and growing number of opportunities, and that the lack of aging only but improves our chances of seizing them. But also that in any case this is all quite unnecessary to avoid boredom. Our evolution has prepared us to be satisfied in a generally stable and narrow world, without time limits. Tomorrow’s bicentenarian will be just as subject to boredom as today’s thirty something. But no more. Lastly we saw that the worth of things is measured by their emotional impact, their contribution to our happiness, and not by their novelty.
Boredom is not a problem for those who no longer age. Their life is just as worth living as before.
Thank you for listening to this episode, do not hesitate to share it or even better, leave a comment on the site, or YouTube if watching the video. The boredom myth is not the last one, not quite.. see you soon.
Published 2016-07-24. (aging, boredom, immortality, longevity, life extension)