(First published in 2015 in another blog, Boot Camp FOR The Bonus Years.) In which the bonus years are defined, rejected, resented, and grudgingly accepted.
The bonus years are the years we will live beyond our subconscious life expectancy. Here’s what I mean.
Average life expectancy
First, a quote from Statistics New Zealand.
We can never know precisely how long we’ll live, but statistics show:
New Zealanders are living progressively longer
women live longer than men
death rates continue to decline at all ages
life expectancy increases further for each additional year we live.
In other words, the older you are now, the older you can expect to be when you die.
What the heck? Yes, that’s the story. A 3-year-old New Zealand girl can expect to live until 83 years — but the average 75-year-old New Zealand woman has a life expectancy of 89.2–90.
So there you have it: I can expect to live to around 90 years. Or can I? Not necessarily. After all, some New Zealand 75-year-old women will die at 90, others will die before 80 and some will live to 100. But how about me?
Individual life expectancy
The average prediction of 90 years of life is enough to do my head in, but I could have got used to that. However, I am not the average person in my cohort. Nor is anyone. I am me, you are you, we are us, and they are them, and none of us is average. So an average life expectancy figure is meaningless for individuals.
If like me you have been lucky enough to dodge cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and arthritis and reach 75 in excellent health, you are pretty sure to outlive your grandparents, who lived in more difficult times. On top of that, if like me you happen to be female, live in New Zealand, have good nutrition and exercise habits, and inherit a happiness gene or two, you may be handed a decade of bonus years on a plate. Whether you like it or not, you are likely to grow very old.
Today I used four online calculators that claim to estimate my personal life expectancy.
University of Pennsylvania researchers give me 94 years (with a 5% chance of dying before 79 or after 108).
The Canadian Public Health calculator says I’ll live to 97.8 years old.
AMP (an insurance company) asks 33 questions and offers me 98 years.
XrX (a health and fitness company) predicts that I will live to 115.9 years old.
Extreme old age is increasingly thrust upon us, whether we like it or not. I’m guessing 98 is a reasonable estimate, given my personal lifestyle and health history. That’s not LOL but OMG.
So I’d better get used to it. But it’s not easy.
Subconscious life expectancy
We also have an instinctive, subjective, subtle, intensely personal, not always rational expectation that we will live to a particular age. This expectation may be conscious or may lurk unacknowledged in our subconscious. It’s built on assumptions and life experience and a patchy understanding of statistics.
Your subconscious life expectancy may exert considerable power. I didn’t even know I had one until it was blown to smithereens by the data.
All my grandparents died in their mid-eighties, and deep inside I supposed I would do the same. Then I realised that my instinctive life expectancy of 84 was seriously inaccurate. (Yes yes, obviously I could become fatally ill or disabled tomorrow, but we’re looking at the odds.)
Arithmetic is not my strong suit, but I can calculate the difference between 84 and 98. Out of the blue I have been granted 14 bonus years.
Grown-ups may throw tantrums when granted bonus years
Discovering that I was likely to live long past my imaginary due-date was like a smack in the face. I launched into the longest loudest tantrum in the southern hemisphere.
My hissy fit lasted 24 hours. Then I started to think about the implications.
Then I thought, Okaaaaay. If I’m truly stuck with these extra years, better make them good ones.
I noticed other implications of these bonus years. I’ve still got enough time to do almost anything I want. Hell’s bells, I could become a brain surgeon!
The first 75 years just kind of happened to me. Now it’s time to pay attention. Suddenly, preparing for old age is an issue. That’s why I decided to undertake a personal boot camp.
Feel the fury and let it go
I suspect this rage-against-the-bonus-years is not uncommon. I know two other people who became homicidal or clinically depressed when told they would live longer than expected. But in each case the news was a timely alarm, because after our tantrums we’ve all decided to make our next 10–20 years the best they can possibly be.
And getting over the tantrum is a Good Thing, according to research by Dr Becca R. Levy of Yale University and colleagues, published in 2002. They studied attitudes to ageing in 660 adults in Ohio age 50–90 over 22 years. Those who developed positive attitudes about getting older lived more than seven years longer than those who had negative attitudes. And these were not just extra years but healthier years.
“Self-perceptions of aging had a greater impact on survival,” the researchers say, “than did gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health.” In fact, positive attitudes had a greater effect than lowered blood pressure or cholesterol (which increase life span by an estimated four years) or exercise, weight loss, or non-smoking status (which add one to three years).
When grandchildren are almost grown up, buying fewer gifts could be an easy transition, we hope. Looking at the wrapping for the gifts we shared this year, we’re already on the way. Only a few years ago, I seem to remember the wrappings filled a large rubbish sack.
It’s a sad fact that at 18 and 21, grandchildren #1 and #2 don’t actually believe in Santa any longer, so Santa can take his duties rather lightly. As for me, I gave #1 a voucher for an editing course (with me as tutor), and #2 a Tibetan brass bowl that I’ve had for years. Un-ching! Parsimonious.
A year of non-shopping
I wouldn’t call this a resolution, rather a casual decision that became inevitable. For an entire year, I intend to buy no new clothes or gimmicks or stuff, beyond the necessary.
Relax, I will still buy food. And stationery… when I’ve used every piece of paper in the house. Books: let me buy a maximum of 2 new ebooks per month—that’ll get me active reading classics and using libraries. Clothes: I hope to get by without buying even a pair of socks.
When problem-solving = shopping
The thing is, my default reaction when I encounter a wee glitch is currently to go shopping. It’s pathetic. Smoothies too gritty? Buy a better tool. Ugly, crumbling gym shoes? Buy new. Paper shredder too feeble? Buy a bigger model. Sunblock too sticky? Buy another brand. Jug too small for making kombucha? Buy a bigger jug. And so on.
Once you catch yourself defaulting to an acquisitive mind-set (and by the way, what would your mother say?!) it feels horrible and you want to stop. So I have, already. I like gritty smoothies—call them gritties. My gym shoes are still comfy and strong. I don’t even need a shredder: give it away. Find the other six tubes of sunblock. Use the big coffee plunger.
Don’t get the stuff you love: love the stuff you’ve got
I’ll be interested to see whether any the following come to pass.
I get familiar with garments that haven’t been getting much wear lately.
I start to use odd items in inventive ways.
I discover lost treasures.
I give more, not less, to the charity shops.
I find an extra hour in every week.
I am more mindful of my brain’s behaviour.
I exude a sanctimonious glow and my friends flee in droves.
Right now, on 31 December, a year of no (or minimal) shopping holds no fear for me. You see I’ve done the no-shop thing before, for about 6 months, and it was easy and pleasurable. Because when you make that mental switch it feels so good. It’s a relief. And oh, it does make life simpler.
That might not sound like fun to you, but to me it will be fascinating. Enrolments are closed: nine people enquired, and eight people booked. Perfect. I like to believe that’s because I was clear about the content and style of the workshops, and also judged the level of publicity accurately — just one announcement did the trick. Soon I’ll update my Gantt chart (whee!) and dig into the details.
I prefer to over-prepare, despite knowing that the plan always changes on the day. In this case, I hope to meet the needs of everyone in this small group of writers.
I nearly wrote, in this elite group of writers — because it is: in a small group, everyone is important, everyone’s ideas carry weight. Nevertheless, I shall over-prepare as usual.
Project 2: playing with poems
Right now, I’m having a go at sorting some poems ready for a new collection. They’re derived from my granddaughter’s chatter when she was a little girl, and she’s old enough now to give me permission to publish them with her real name. So it’s time to start editing and playing around with some poems that still make me laugh or smile. No rush with this labour of love.
(Reposted from my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years, 2015.) In which somebody is mean to me, and I am sustained by rote phrases to a painful situation.
This week I magically applied lessons from a course on the Science of Happiness to shift myself from despondent to normal in a twinkling. Normal for me means happy, by the way.
I’d been pretty relaxed about the UC Berkeley course I was doing. Yeah yeah, I knew all that! None of the content was new to me, and I certainly didn’t enrol because I was unhappy.
Then something bad happened
Somebody in my circle made an astonishing remark (twice) that felt like a whack on the face. Their perception of our relationship was one I couldn’t recognise and felt I could not bear. I spent the rest of the day stunned, like a zombie. And yes, dramatically unhappy.
My first thoughts: This is a statement they can never un-say, and it changes our relationship forever.
My second thoughts: At least it’s good that I know this. It explains a lot. I’m less confused. Now that I know how they feel, I will be better equipped to cope with reality.
All very well. Not bad going, I suppose. But at this stage — still not happy, not by a long chalk.
Keywords flash into action
Next evening on the way home from dance rehearsal, a friend and I were deep in conversation. Suddenly a word popped into my brain out of nowhere: Resilience.
Then keyword number two popped: Compassion.
What happened next: a happiness coup
Within two seconds, truly, I felt happy again. Happiness rose like a phoenix from the ashes of happiness. (Should be a bluebird, not that hawky-griffony sort of creature.)
Instant happiness. Easy as turning on a light. This cannot be! I still can’t understand.
Even weirder, my happiness level has not dropped since that moment when I was all lit up within. I still am a bit shocked, but I’m no longer horrified or hurting. Instead I’m quietly empathising and sending compassionate thoughts out to the same person who for a short time loomed so threateningly in my world.
Keywords came straight from course materials
Actually, those two words didn’t come out of nowhere. They came straight from the short, low-key online course I was doing. Certain concepts and practices around happiness were fresh in my mind.
What still puzzles me is that when I needed them most, the right concept (Resilience) and the right practice (Compassion) suddenly jumped into my consciousness unsought. What a brain! Retrieval was instantaneous and even verbalised. You’d swear I wasn’t a day older than 74.
Phrases in the brain: learning to the rescue
Each keyword came packed with other phrases attached. In that lightning transformation, a sequence of thoughts popped up in rapid succession —I could almost hear myself thinking these words: “Resilience. Oh yes! Gotta drop this right now. Rumination is bad for you. So you wanted yes and you got a no? Let it go. You still have a beautiful life. But what to do?”
And then: “Compassion. Of course! That person is hurting. They told me so. They said it twice. It must be true for them. I can’t change that. Do compassion meditations. Step back and listen. It’s not about me.”
New coping tools can be learned
Life is not painless. Life hurts now and then. How to cope?
In the past, I’ve made huge efforts to distance myself from painful experiences. To achieve a happier perspective on my divorce, for instance, I invented tricks like drawing cartoons and stumbled towards other happiness practices by accident, trial and error.
Apparently I have now pasted certain coping strategies into my brain. Books and articles and this course on the science of happiness have clarified what works, how it works, and how to apply these winning strategies.
Looking back over the few bad times in my life, I appreciate what I’ve learned since then.
Even so, surely it’s not normal to leap straight back into happiness with the lightest of mental gestures? Maybe it was nothing to do with learning. Forget the phoenix. Maybe I was touched by an angel.
Image from La Litteratura Espagnola by Angel Salcedo y Ruiz, 1916. Public domain.
On a big scale, a dry hill path is a worry. Fire risk. Global warming. All that.
But it’s easier to walk down a dry path than a wet path. In the wet, you’re constantly grabbing branches to stop yourself slipping and falling. It’s a bit tricky.
In dry conditions, one hazard remains: you must not plant your foot unthinkingly on those small gravel patches. They can act like ball bearings and hurl you off your feet and on to your back. Hasn’t happened to me, but to a friend. Ambulance, specialty ambulance, stretcher, hoist, topped by six weeks before her torn tissues healed.