Life is Short

A Twenty-first Century Myth

“Life is short,” we mutter as the calendar flips through these dark December days heading to another year. We believe our time on earth is brief, but that assumption doesn’t correlate with twenty-first century reality. Aside from Old Testament characters, which reportedly lived for centuries, people have never lived longer than we do today.

One signature statistic describes how the twentieth century transformed human existence: our lifespans increased by more than 25 years. The average American born in 1901 could expect to live to age 47. That same person born in 2000 could expect to celebrate 73 New Year’s Eves. After eons of incremental advances, lifespans leapt at a rate of three months per year throughout the developed world.

The United States was not alone in this accomplishment. Though we enjoyed the longest lives on earth through the 1970’s, other countries have since eclipsed American’s longevity. In this century, the rate of longevity extension has slowed, in some places, for some demographics, life expectancy has slipped. Yet, around the globe, more people are living longer than ever before.

Some plants and a few animals live longer than us. The bowhead whale, the longest living mammal, can blow his snout through two hundred winters; a number of tortoises born in 1850 are still alive today. An American born in that year had less than half the life expectancy we now enjoy. Actuarily, if I’d been born in 1850, I’d already be twenty years dead. Fortunately, since I’m 66 in 2021, Social Security estimates I’ve seventeen more years to carry on. I’m angling for even a few more.

Maybe life seems short because everyone gripes we’re so busy. Again the facts defy our protestations. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average person works a total of 3.54 hours a day, almost as much as the 2.83 hours we spend watching TV. We even manage to sleep more than eight hours a night, despite the bleary eyes around the office coffee pot on Monday mornings. Since our society focuses ‘work’ into an in intense period of active adulthood (when we’re also raising children and scrambling for economic security), averages don’t reflect the full spectrum of workaholics, or TV bingers. However, they do expose our human propensity to boast about busyness while downplaying our less productive pursuits.

The dual mantras of “busy” and “life is short,” offer psychological solace. Espousing busy, busy, busy, gives us purpose, while bemoaning that life is short excuses whatever we leave undone. Most of us alive today will thrive into our 70’s, many will pass 100, yet we still cling to the refrain that “life is short” because it’s a comforting soundtrack through our long journey.

If we think life is too short, then how long would we like to live? Science journalist David Ewing Duncan has asked more than 30,000 people to choose their optimal lifespan: 80 years, 120 years, 150 years, or forever. A solid 60% majority wished to live eighty years while less than one percent sought immortality. Despite what we say, we don’t really want to live much longer.

Most of the increase in our life expectancy is due to reductions in infant mortality. A person who survived to age 5 in 1901 had a good chance of reaching 60 or 70, as did folks in colonial America or Ancient Greece. Surviving those first five years was the tough part. These days, many more children survive infancy, but we’ve also increased every other phase of life. Childhood is longer, adolescence longer; extended middle age lasts into our sixties; triple digit elderly are becoming common.

Hippocrates started this myth in 400 B.C. when he wrote, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” Apt words for a physician confronting an ill patient whose individual life may be soon over. But they are misconstrued when extrapolated to everyone. Imagine how different our outlook would be if we exclaimed, “Life is long, art eternal, opportunity abundant, experiment exciting, judgment clear.” What if, instead of fretting about life’s temporary nature, we acknowledge that we inhabit this earth for a long time; time that affords us leisure to explore, analyze, and evaluate before we act.

This New Year I’m abandoning the phrase, “Life is short.” Evidence demonstrates the contrary. Instead, I embrace our longevity as a gift as well as a challenge. I resolve to live with the long view in mind.

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Image courtesy of the Nature Conservancy

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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