Is there anything that fills us with more terror than death? We do everything in our power to postpone it: we eat kale, run marathons, join Soul Cycle, do juice cleanses. But no matter how healthily we eat or rigorously we bicycle, we can’t escape the inescapable. Even if quitting our nasty habit of smoking does add 5 years to our lives, there’s no guarantee that those extra 5 years will make our lives more meaningful.
In his latest book A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, and listen to our boredom, incredible intellect Alain de Botton argues that “if the goal is to have a longer life…the priority should not be to add raw increments of time, but to ensure whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial.”
As Einstein discovered over one hundred years ago, time is relative— not absolute. Unlike other units of measurement like feet or inches, how we experience hours and minutes changes: the five minutes before summer vacation can feel like five hours, the lovely afternoon we spend with our crush can pass in what seems like seconds. Time can drag ploddingly or race mind-blowingly fast. As Einstein once said, “When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
But why is it, exactly, that time accelerates when we get older? When we’re children, life feels like it will go on forever. But as we age, time speeds up: in our twenties, it jogs; in our thirties, it sprints; in our forties and beyond, the hands of the clock seem to move at a million miles an hour.
For Botton, “the difference in pace is not mysterious; it has to do with novelty. The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel. Conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in a blur.” In childhood, each day contains novel encounters and never-before-seen characters. Our early life is essentially defined by “firsts”: our first time standing on our own two feet, our first time going to grade school, our first time bringing our beloved Curious George doll to show-and-tell, our first time losing a tooth. Not yet made weary by experience, we are astonished by the most ordinary things: the cycles of day and night, the miracle of rain, the basic arithmetic of 2 + 2. Our curiosity is insatiable. We want to know why we exist, why human civilizations rise and fall, why the octopus has eight legs and why clouds form.
But by middle age, life loses some of its novelty. We may have important jobs and traveled thousands of miles. Everyday things no longer spark a feeling of wonderment. We’re no longer interested in the stars in the sky or the depths of Earth’s oceans. We find most things tedious. We have mastered the major disciplines: English, history, calculus, physics. We know “adult” things like how to open a bank account and make a dinner reservation. Because we believe we’ve seen it all, there are very few things that absorb our attention.
In adulthood, most of our days unfold in the exact same way: we rise at 6:30, make our morning coffee, shower, scramble to make orange juice and waffles for our children and get ourselves ready. We follow the exact same route— left on Meredith, right on Channing— to the subway station and take the red line downtown just as we do every morning. We make small talk with the same people, write the same emails, go to the same meetings only to wake up the next day and do the exact same thing. “As a result,” Botton writes, “time runs away from us without mercy.”
So how do we lengthen our lives? The most obvious answer is to find more exhilarating sources of novelty. We need to visit the pyramids of Giza and the wondrous rainforests of the Amazon. We need the adrenaline rush of jumping off of planes and swimming with Galapagos sharks. If we want fresh experiences, we believe, we have to travel to faraway places where people practice strange customs and speak foreign languages— we can’t remain confined to the dull familiarity of our own backyards.
“However,” Botton objects, “this is to labour under an unfair, expensive and ultimately impractical notion of novelty: that it must involve seeing new things when it should really involve seeing familiar things with new eyes.” In reality, we don’t have to parachute out of planes or fly to Tahiti to find something beautiful or interesting. We just have to be willing to look at things differently. Like an explorer from a distant land or an alien who lands in a cornfield from Kepler 16b, we can bring attentive eyes to the things we normally neglect. Rather than regard the ordinary and commonplace with world-weariness, we can recapture the child’s ability to be astonished.
In this new state of mind, simple things like a red carnation or the intoxicating scent of perfume on a summer wind reveal themselves remarkable things worthy of appreciation. No longer do we regard our loved ones as predictable characters from a novel we’ve already read— we realize they’re just as mysterious as strangers in a subway station. The city we’ve lived our entire lives becomes as awe-inspiring as the canals of Venice.
If we want to live longer lives, we can learn something from artists. As Botton so eloquently writes in his other masterpiece of philosophy, The Art of Travel, the central task of the artist is to open our eyes to what regularly escapes our notice: Chardin, for example, opens our eyes to the understated elegance of a glass of wine and loaf of bread; Cezanne to the neglected beauty of apples and oranges; Van Gogh to the glorious primary colors of Provence. Unlike us, the artist doesn’t let habit get in the way of wonderment. Rather than let life slip away, he remains awake to the dignity of the old peasant, the drama of a group of men playing cards, the aesthetically-pleasing proportions of a jug of milk and wedge of cheese. Because the artist is curious and conscious, a single second can feel like an eternity. He might not live longer than the average person, but his life feels longer because he lives more deeply.
In the end, we can never defeat mortality. But we can make the most of the short lives we have by savoring the small moments of our day. Even if we never compose a poem or paint a still life, we can adopt the artist’s orientation to the world and, as Botton concludes, “aim to live more deliberately.”