Healthy Life Extension and Boredom

I recently talked about the ubiquity of the Tithonus Error as an objection to healthy life extension, saying:

This is an interesting experiment: find any random person you know and ask them what the downside would be to using better medicine to live for 150 years. Nine times out of ten, I'll wager, your friend will tell you that living for so long would be terrible because a person would spend most of his or her life decrepit, increasingly crippled by age-related conditions. In otherwords, your random friend thinks that "healthy life extension" means "being aged for longer."

In a comment on that post, Alejandro Dubrovsky said:

No, i've done the experiments many times. The number one answer is 'boredom'.

He's right in that this is another common objection to healthy life extension. The world seems divided into two camps on this topic. For one side, it seems self-evident that longer life means boredom. To the other side - my side - this is a very strange attitude indeed. My life is so busy, by my choice, that I am prevented from doing nine tenths of the things I want to do. I must constantly, ruthlessly prioritize. It would take me a dozen lifetimes just to sample everything on my to-do list, never mind taking my time about it all!

How could anyone feel that they would be bored? In part, this might stem from the Tithonus Error itself. A person may assume they would be old and incapacitated in their extended life span, thus unable to do interesting things. But if you have the body and physical capabilities of a 30 year old, why not go clubbing in a new city to new music at 90. Or 190? As Joao Pedro de Magalhaes says:

Imagine that your grandmother looks like a teenager, plays soccer, parties at the clubs all night, and works as a venture capitalist. Or imagine your grandfather teaching you the latest high-tech computer software in his office, which you hate to visit because of the loud heavy metal music. Such a scenario is hard to envision because we are taught to accept aging and the resulting suffering and death as an immutable fact of life. We cannot picture our grandparents in better physical shape than we are. Nonetheless, aging may soon become nothing more than a scary bedtime story, perhaps one your grandfather will tell your grandson after a day of white-water rafting together.

Another possibility is a slightly more subtle one: a lot of people don't understand or appreciate the fact that change happens, and that we are ultimately responsible for change and betterment in our own lives. The future can always be better - if we make it so! We live in a society in which media, government and educators undervalue or ignore change, responsibility and self-improvement. So if a person is unhappy in their life now, he or she will often look ahead to see nothing but an extension of the present. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy at worst, and simply inaccurate at best. If you're bored today, do something about it!

Even active, inventive, happy people often assume that longer healthy lives will bring boredom through repetition, however. Ask someone you know how long it would take them to run out of new things to do and become bored if they could live in good health forever. Your friend will give you an outrageously low number of years, I'll bet. If you stop to think about it - rather than just going on instinct - you'll soon realize that you are never going to be any more likely to become bored of life than you are right now. There is simply too much to do, too many different things to think, feel, do and accomplish. In fact, the advance of technology means there is always more to do with each new passing year. New possibilities, activities and enhancements to the quality and variety of life are constantly opening up.

Instinct and gut feeling doesn't always serve us well, and healthy life extension is one area where it lets us down badly. For further reading, I recommend starting with Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Singularity Fun Theory", which handily answers questions like:

  • How much fun is there in the universe?
  • What is the relation of available fun to intelligence?
  • What kind of emotional architecture is necessary to have fun?
  • Will eternal life be boring?
  • Will we ever run out of fun?

It may surprise you to see that one can examine these topics from a fairly scientific basis. This is really all about the number of things we can do, how quickly we get bored, and related ways in which our minds work. You can put numbers, physics and cognitive science to work on questions like these and get sound, serious answers.

A last possibility occurs to me: we live in a world in which individual autonomy and self-determination is valued less and less as time goes on. Many people expect to have new scientific advances forced on them by governments irrespective of their own opinions and desires. This is also true of healthy life extension - a large number of people suppose that they will be forced to live longer lives even if they choose not to.

Sadly, unless the direction in which our Western governments are heading changes, this is probably true. People are currently forced by law to live longer than they would want in many cases, since euthanasia is illegal in many parts of the world. This is a troubling state of affairs, since your life and body should be your business. The length of your life should be your choice. In essence, the search for working anti-aging medicine is all about providing a choice that we do not currently have: to choose to live another day, every day, with the healthy and capacity to enjoy it. If you do not want to live longer, if you do not want to take the anti-aging medicine of the future, you should not be forced to do so against your will.

How does this relate to boredom? Being forced to live a longer, healthy life when you don't want to seems to equate to boredom for some people. Again, I think this links back to the Tithonus Error, and linking later years with sedentary, quiet, inactive, "boring" lives.

However you cut it, it's clear that a web of assumptions, instinctive responses and false premises underly commonplace disinterest in and opposition to healthy life extension. My previous conclusion stands:

In order to widen the appeal of healthy life extension and gain widespread support for serious anti-aging research, we must overcome barriers imposed by misconceptions like the Tithonus Error. This is one reason why education, of both the media and the public, is so important to the future of health and longevity.