Our Undue Focus on Long Life: Americans are living longer but not necessarily better

Richard Gunderman in The Atlantic:

MainracetrackEarlier this week data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that the life expectancy of people in the United States has increased over the past two decades by three years, to 78.2. This means that the average American today enjoys an extra 1,100 days of life.

…Suppose through some wonder of modern biomedical science we could suddenly double our life expectancy by staying in bed 20 hours per day, or giving up all solid foods, or never again reading a book. Would we do it? To say that we are willing to pay any price in order to increase the length of our lives is to say that we have forgotten what it really means to live. The Struldbruggs in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels are immortal specimens, but they are also miserable human beings, whose unending lives prove to be not blessing but curse. Before we spill too much ink bemoaning the U.S.'s declining standings in the world life expectancy race, we should devote a bit more time to reflection and conversation around what really makes a good life. Though Wolfgang Mozart and Martin Luther King died before the age of 40, they managed to lead extraordinarily productive and admirable lives that enriched the rest of mankind. By contrast, many of us may realize our ambition to become nonagenarians or even centenarians and yet contribute too little that really makes a difference. By this standard, our fiercest competitor is right here at home.

The real measure of a life is not how long it lasts. The real measure of a life is what we make of each and every day. We have exactly the same number of minutes per day as the Gateses and Buffetts of the world. How effectively are we making use of this time? I suspect that the best way to lead a truly full life is not by straining every sinew to keep our hearts beating to the last possible moment, but instead by bringing ourselves and others as fully to life as possible. And I won't be surprised to learn someday that living deeply also does far more than diet and exercise to keep us going as well.

More here.