Recently, Reason of Fight Aging! pointed out psychological research revealing a certain conservatism in terms of what people consider to be the “ideal” levels of happiness, intelligence, longevity, and even health.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that significant numbers of people in the studies weren’t too keen on the idea of living much longer than the average (around 90 years), and even under the assumption of eternal youth, their preference didn’t go past 120 on average; after all, LEAF wouldn’t be in business if the idea of healthy life extension wasn’t so inexplicably frowned upon. What’s really flabbergasting, though, is that even health—health!—is apparently something you can have too much of; on a scale from 0 (“completely unhealthy”) to 100 (“completely healthy”), the average preference gravitated somewhere between 80 and 90. These results provide us with an occasion for reflection.
It’s uncertain whether the respondents in these studies realized the bizarre yet inevitable implications of their statements. If 100 means “completely healthy” and your “ideal” level of health is only, say, 85, does that mean that, should you ever perceive that you’re about “90” healthy, you’d deliberately start looking into ways of harming your own health to get back to your ideal level? How, exactly, would being “90” healthy be too much? What would you dislike about not being a little more sick? How would you benefit from being less than completely healthy? Has there ever been, at any point in your life, a moment when you thought, “Blimey, I’m far too healthy for my own good. Time to get sick”? Do you think a point will ever come when, while sick, you’ll think, “Perfect timing—I was just concerned that I was healthier than my ideal level”?
This is pretty much already straight-jacket crazy, and it doesn’t really get any better. If you work under the assumption that your health will inevitably deteriorate past age 70, then it’s understandable if even the most daring interviewees don’t wish to live much longer than average; it’s much less understandable that, even when granted eternal youth, people didn’t want to live past 120.
Perhaps the interviewees’ interpretation was that they’d be the only ones to get the magic pill that, in the study’s thought experiment, would have made them forever young, and thus they were concerned with the possibility outliving all of their loved ones; maybe they committed the same mistake as many others and thought that after 120 years, they’d be inevitably bored with life; these are all aspects that need to be clarified before asking people how long they’d like to live, given perfect health; otherwise, the answer may be skewed by incorrect assumptions. This is why the lifespan conservatism emerged in this study is not as much of an eye-popper as the fact that interviewees didn’t want perfect health or perfect happiness.
The same questions we asked in the case of “excessive” health apply to happiness. If you ever noticed you were too happy for your ideal level, would you try to get a little bit depressed? Perhaps you’d look for bad news in the paper, intentionally be late for an important appointment, tear the pages of your favorite book, or pick a fight with your significant other just to worsen the general mood a little bit? How would being happier than your ideal level negatively affect you? Would it make you… unhappy?
Don’t anger the gods
The interviewees were asked about their ideal level of a certain trait, not the level they’d be content with; regardless, it is very much possible that they didn’t answer according to their wishes but according to what they thought was reasonable to expect, given the circumstances. If this is the case, it would be interesting to know why. It is somewhat reminiscent of the time when humans in need turned to vengeful gods; they wouldn’t dare asking too much for fear of upsetting their deities. Perhaps more realistically, as Reason pointed out in his article, this conservatism is caused by our innate wish to conform to the expectations of the group. It’s arguable that, even if the respondents actually wanted to live 200 years, or forever, they might feel uncomfortable admitting to it, given that many people unjustly regard such a desire as the ultimate example of selfishness.
Preserving the status quo
With very few exceptions, people don’t advocate for a return to more primitive times. I’ve yet to hear anyone say that the average lifespan should shorten back to 40 years, that infectious diseases need to be brought back in full swing, or that automation and technology should be scaled down so that we can have the good old 14-hour working day back. Rather, it appears that people tend to oppose radical change that could fundamentally alter the way we currently think about life, work, and society in general.
Quite likely, before the Industrial Revolution, there were people who vehemently opposed the rise of automation because, for good or bad, it represented the end of their way of life; they defended the status quo not because it was intrinsically good but because it was what they were used to. Today, we look upon that age as very primitive and we’re glad we don’t live in it anymore, but, at the same time, we fail to realize that our age isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of our civilization and that our society hasn’t reached its final, eternal form—if such a thing could even exist.
Some people shudder at the thought that, in the future, we might no longer need to work for a living; that our average lifespan might increase well beyond a hundred; that old people might no longer look “old”; and that the stages of life as we know them might become meaningless. It is as though they expect that, say, 500 years from now, humans will still work eight hours a day; complain about their jobs and bills; and go to school, get jobs, marry, have children, retire, and die exactly on the same schedule and in the same way as today. It’s as if we’d already reached the way humans are supposed to live their lives and everything will happen exactly as it already does, perhaps just with fancier tools, as in an episode of The Jetsons.
It’s not possible to tell whether the future will or won’t be just more of the same, only with better technology, but people seem not only to think that it will be but also to wish it will be, to some extent. The idea of living, growing old, and dying just like their parents and grandparents might give people a sense that their lives are planned and structured and that they won’t have to go through the trouble of reinventing or rediscovering themselves every few decades; perhaps, they’d rather know that they’ll be dead in 50 years rather than not know where they might be.
How do we change this?
Making people snap out of this mindset is the hardest bit of an advocate’s job, and not just for the particular cause of life extension. Convincing anyone at all that abandoning the status quo in favor of a new paradigm could be beneficial is not easy, and data and fine reasoning might not be enough to make someone give up on the comfort offered by the thoughts that human life is generally fine as it is and that no effort is required to produce radical changes. In the case of rejuvenation biotechnology, advocacy is certainly useful in that it may plant the seed of doubt in the mind of the skeptics, and its efficacy increases as the topic grows more popular thanks to the efforts of more and more advocates; yet, it is likely that the tipping point when a significant number of people will wake up and acknowledge the desirability of an aging-free world will occur only when pioneering therapies in humans will conclusively prove its feasibility beyond a reasonable doubt. Thankfully, with the first rejuvenation clinical trial having already begun, that point might be closer than we think.