Esteemed film producer Sam Goldwyn called Dorothy Parker into his office one day to complain about her screenplays.
The savagely witty Parker, whose erudite writings had not only been published to high praise, but had also earned two Academy Award nominations, was apparently not the least bit intimidated.
Goldwyn groused about the way Parker’s scripts lacked positive endings. “Everybody wants a happy ending,” he said.
Parker shot back with this answer: billions of people have lived on this planet and none has ever had a happy ending.
There are two or three versions of this story, and perhaps it’s completely apocryphal, but there is a harsh truth here.
The best that can be expected is a relatively long, happy life that is productive, satisfying, and full of meaningful relationships — then it ends with a mercifully short final chapter. What happens after the passing is a theological matter: but in terms of what we experience, life is a combination of our own efforts and pure luck.
So, it’s no mystery why there are somewhere between 9 and 11 billion dollars spent in this country each year on self-help endeavors: what psychologists call self-actualization is all we really have.
There is no shortage of experts who, by use of the scientific method, anecdotal evidence or just seat-of-the-pants logic, proclaim truths about how to live longer and be more fulfilled– what to eat, how much to exercise, whether to get married or not, which philosophy makes the most sense, where to live, and how to raise our children.
As one comic noted, if people follow all of the advice of experts on how to live to be 100 years old, the pleasures of life would be so few that no one would want to live to be 100.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures indicate that the lifespan of Americans is trending downward, but just slightly. On average, we live 78.6 years — men have shorter spans (76.1) than women (81.1).
Leading causes of death read like a table of CDC’s usual suspects: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, respiratory disease, strokes, diabetes, homicide, and suicide are among the chief culprits.
Studies conducted by the CDC offer informed common sense recommendations about how to increase longevity — don’t smoke, keep weight under control, regular exercise, and moderate alcohol consumption.
But examining the lives of people who have lived over 100 years indicate that there is contradictory evidence about the CDC’s recommendations.
And, a respected Longevity Project study conducted by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, one which employed eighty years worth of data, sends common sense up in smoke.
Consider the case of Jeanne Calment who lived more than 122 years. This French lady from Arles had a fairly stress free life which featured plenty of exercise (she stopped cycling when she turned 100).
But she was a smoker for much of her life (including, at times, cigars), ate meat and chocolate (as much as two pounds a week of the latter), poured olive oil over her food and drank cheap red wine. Not exactly a role model.
Further, the Longevity Project’s conclusions included the notion that some worry is good, moderate exercise (preferably an activity one enjoys, not the drudgery of daily gym workouts) is a plus, and what the researchers call “conscientiousness” (a personality characterized by persistence, prudence, strong organizational skills and even a slight tendency toward obsession) is more important than a cheerful, optimistic view of life.
Given the vast amount of research, and the sometimes conflicting nature of that research, there are no easy answers. But one pioneering gerontologist, Dr. Denham Harman, who died at the age of 98 in 2014, offered a different perspective.
As the founder of the American Aging Association in 1970, Harman was an M.D., and had a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Much of his focus was on antioxidants.
Harman’s core principle was that old age is just another disease, one that could be treated, but never cured. Emphasis on never cured.
His philosophy was simple: accept the fact that you will not live forever, stay active, and perhaps most importantly, always have a sense of purpose that keeps your mind engaged.
Harman stated that there “is an inborn aging process” that science will never outwit.
Even into his late 80’s, Harman would arise at 4:30 am, be in the office by 7, and work an 8 hour day. When asked why he kept such a rigorous schedule, Harman said: “Because I am busy. If you don’t stay busy, you die. I don’t want to die right now.”
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PHOTO CREDIT: Caren Alexis