The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, January 14, 2012
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I recently learned that there are some biological symmetries between almost all living creatures, in terms of size versus metabolism rate. Tiny creatures like mice and the shrew have very fast metabolisms; their hearts beat quickly, they breath rapidly, and they eat more than their own weight each day. But they burn out fast; their lives are relatively short, just a few years. Elephants are bigger than us, they have slower metabolisms. They live about as long as modern humans do today (70-80 years), but that’s a bit of an unfair comparison given that humans have the benefit of their brains and civilization; go back 2,000 years, and our average life span was more like 35 years. Admittedly, elephants in captivity don’t live as long as in the wild, but then again, how long would we live if we were held in captivity by elephants and they provided for our needs?

The bottom line of all this is that we get about 300 to 500 million breathes in our lifetime; shrews, mice, cats, dogs, humans, horses, and elephants get a bit less, more like 200 million (but again, until about 2,000 years ago, less than 10% of the overall history of the homo sapiens species, we would only get around 250 million breaths in our average 35 year lifespan). So, civilization has given us maybe an extra 150 million breaths. The question is, are we using those breaths wisely? Are we happier than shrews, dogs, cats, horses and elephants in the wild?

That’s a tough question to answer. But the process of civilization did make humans more wealthy on average, and it made certain individual very wealthy relative to everyone else. So we are able to ask this question: are the richer people of today happier than the poorer ones?

I’d like to think that the answer is no, that wealth distracts us from the important things in life. However, there are some studies that show the opposite. For instance, this chart and this chart from The Economist both indicate that on average, people in the richer countries are happier than those in poorer countries.

Another way of looking at this is to ask, are we happier today, here in modern American society, than we were say 40 or 50 years ago? I don’t think there are any comparative surveys to determine that. Speaking for myself, I sometimes believe that things were better and people were happier back when I was a kid, in the early 1960’s. Life was slower and simpler, there weren’t as many people around, things were less crowded, the sun seemed to shine brighter, the summers seemed longer, etc.

But when I ask myself if I would accept an offer to transplant my 58 year old body to the year 1960 thru some sort of time machine, and live the rest of my life in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I start having second thoughts. No personal computers? No internet? No decaf coffee (other than Sanka, yuck)? Supermarkets that were smaller and dirtier and didn’t have much of a selection of fresh fruits and veggies? No copy machines, no faxes, no cell phones or smart phones, the n-word was still in use in most places? And they didn’t have many of the medicines that we have today, a lot of diseases that can be managed were fatal back then.

Cigarette smoke was everywhere, and cars broke down a lot. Most communities were very homogeneous, i.e. all white or all black or all Hispanic, etc. I’d have to re-live the Cuban missile crisis, when America came within a half hour of a big nuclear war. And then the Kennedy assassination, the riots in the cities, the whole Vietnam thing; and then the hippies and the summer of love and the campus “occupations” and the psychedelic music of the late 60s. There wasn’t much of a variety of different beers and wines in the typical liquor store (Bud, Miller, Schlitz, Rhinegold, Piels, Pabst; you want wine? OK, Gallo).

So, as crazy as things are today, and for all the things I miss from the old days, I’ll stay in the present. I’m more adapted to and more spoiled by things as they are today. So I’ll try to make the best of how ever many breaths I have left right here in the wacky world of the “twenty one-teens” ,as the American Great Recession continues. (Half Depression, as I like to call it – the Depression of the 30’s lasted 10 or 11 years, and if we’re lucky, our 2008 financial crisis will be fully resolved by 2014).

One final thought: I’d like to see the correlation between national happiness and average lifespan along side the Economist graphs that I cited above. But one or two quick facts in that vein: Norway, Denmark and Canada are way up there on the happiness scale, and they have average lifespans of 80.2, 78.3 and 80.7, respectively; Indonesia, China and Turkey trail the pack in happiness, and their average lifespans are 70.7, 73.0 and 71.1. Australia is quite happy and people there average 81.2; Russia is pretty miserable and they average 65.5. I still contend that wealth doesn’t buy happiness; but it might, on average, buy longer lifespan.

It looks to me as though the prospect of an extra 5 or 10 years, or around 70 million breaths, does make people feel better about their lives (and of course, it works both ways – feeling better about life contributes to living longer). But in the end, we get what we get; the trick is to worry a little less about how many breaths we have left, and enjoy the simple act of breathing – right here, and right now!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:22 pm      

  1. Jim, Your blog leads me to ask myself exactly how one defines happiness. I remember when I was a kid—sometime during the 1940s, my father would take us for a ride “in the country” for recreation. “Country” then was outside the city of Chicago; this area is no where even near the city limits of Chicago now. (But I digress, as I too often do.) I would sit in the back seat of the car, looking out the window at all the homes we passed (which were always far apart with a lot of space between them—or maybe it was that I was little and things seemed so much bigger than they would seem as an adult), and wondered if the people in the homes were happy. I am not sure myself if I knew then how to define “happiness”; I do think I’m somewhat better at defining the word now—at least in regard to defining it for myself.

    One thing I absolutely do know is that I definitely do not define happiness as how long I live, how much money I have (or don’t have), whether or not I have all the latest “things”.

    I tend to think that the amount of money a person has hardly defines happiness. Specifically, if it did, wouldn’t it seem that among all the super-rich there would be less divorce?—for one small question.

    Furthermore, amount of money and its value is very relative. When I was a young girl (1940s again), a “millionaire was almost unheard of; the word “billion” hardly had come into the vocabulary, much less anyone being a “billionaire”, to say nothing of there being more than one nowadays. I find myself wondering: How come so many of these super-rich people are married so often? Can’t be that happy, if you ask me.

    So, money can’t be the answer to happiness.

    As to long life: Again, I find myself asking questions. What about a long life of physical, mental, psychological, or emotional misery? I don’t mean all of them together but a life of misery regarding even just one tends to make me think in terms of unhappiness rather than happiness. I don’t think I’d opt for a long life of misery in even one of those areas of life. (OK, periods of one life may be miserable—but an entire life is what I’m talking about.) I tend to think that people who commit suicide are somehow miserable in one of those ways—perhaps unspoken, untold to others, but nevertheless actually miserable as far as they are concerned.

    And then certainly you are right: Who would want to return to the times in the past—one could go back to the 1960s (my “heyday”), or the 1920s or the 1820s or the 1620s, etc. If we were transplanted as we are now back to any of those times, I doubt we’d “fit in”, to say nothing of being “happy.” If we went back to any one of those times, we’d have to accept the situation as it was then for any chance of happiness. Would anyone care to do that? I doubt it.

    So I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say “enjoy the simple act of breathing – right here, and right now!” MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 15, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

  2. Jim, I find myself thinking about the word “civilization”. Who is to say that the only kind of civilization is one which is external, as ours is—something that can be seen, touched, constructed outside of ourselves.

    What if highly intelligent animals had an interior civilization? That is, one that was completely intellectual or totally emotional or entirely psychological. Specifically, what if the civilization of highly intelligent animals was interior rather than exterior? Then we would not be able to see it or even have any way of knowing it existed short of being able to communicate with such animals as they communicate with themselves, but that inability on our part would not make their civilization unreal.

    I realize this may be too far out, but it’s something I’ve tho’t about for a long time. I find myself thinking that we may not be the only ones right here on earth with a “civilization”. We tend to think of ourselves as the highest animals. We’ve been wrong in the past about a lot of things regarding animals; perhaps this is one more thing we are wrong about. Just a tho’t that pops into my head every now and then. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 17, 2012 @ 10:40 am

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