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IT’S TIME TO TURN LONGEVITY AROUND

Thinking about longevity has gotten stuck in a groove where what matters is the length of life. Longevity refers to the length of life, naturally, and after a two-year drop in average lifespan due to the pandemic, Americans have rejoined the trend of statically increased lifespan.

In 2022, the CDC estimates life expectancy at birth in the U.S. increased to 77.5 years, up 1.1 years from 76.4 years in 2021, but still down 1.3 years from 78.8 years in 2019, before COVID-19. But this statistic is fairly meaningless, even as a raw number.

First, how long you can expect to live depends on having as many pluses on your side compared to minuses. On the plus side: having money and education, being a woman, not belonging to a minority, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, attending to chronic disorders like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and getting good sleep every night. On the minus side are the opposite of these things: Being poor and uneducated, belonging to a minority, being a man, leading a sedentary lifestyle, eating an unhealthy diet leading to overweight, neglecting common chronic disorders, and suffering from insomnia.

These factors define the rut that longevity is in. Prevention isn’t a mystery, and the list for risk prevention can be expanded almost limitlessly. But despite the prevalence of mountains of information, the gap between lifespan and healthspan— the number of healthy years you can expect to enjoy—is actually growing.

The latest statistics show that the average healthspan is 66 years. Because people are living longer, often into their eighties and nineties, those added years can often become a time of disability and debilitation. In other words, the groove we are in as a society isn’t doing what it was supposed to do. To put it starkly, if you are an average American, your 65th birthday will be your last completely healthy birthday.

So what are the pluses and minuses of healthspan? Many are the same as the two lists given above. It is much better if you are going strictly by statistics, to be a well-to-do, educated white woman than a poor, uneducated black male.

Yet even healthspan misses the point. At any age, what matters is personal fulfillment. Feeling old and miserable is one of the worst ways for your life to turn out. The terms wellness and well-being are valuable but tend to fall on deaf ears. This is because people are burdened by chronic conditions that keep them on a track heading for lowered wellbeing as they age.

These chronic conditions include:

  • Pervasive stress, much of it low-level but still damaging
  • Worry and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Routine work
  • Ingrained habits and old conditioning, which are stubborn to change.
  • Lack of a loving relationship
  • Isolation, feeling alone and unsupported
  • Past traumas whose shadows linger over the present
  • Disconnection from higher spiritual values
  • Lack of close family ties
  • Guilt, shame, regret, resentment, and other forms of emotional debt that are never resolved
  • Low self-worth

Modern life brings more of these conditions every year so the longer you hang around, the more you are likely to suffer from them. Other than taking a drug to counter the symptoms of anxiety and depression most people have little ability to improve the debilitating things on the list that creep up as time passes. Lifespan and healthspan statistics aren’t even in the right ballpark.

Clearly, we’d all like to move in the other direction, so that the qualities of wellbeing are enhanced. In other words, the better things in our lives will creep upward as we age. To make that happen means living consciously. The creeping tide of bad things depends on our remaining unconscious. What you don’t repair stays there. Organizing a campaign for well-being sounds tiring if you break it down to a list. But the list is still worth knowing.

You will have rising well-being all your life if you have the following:

  • A loving relationship
  • Fulfilling work that is paid fairly
  • Stability in the face of crisis
  • Emotional maturity
  • Supportive friends and family
  • Belonging to something larger than yourself
  • Emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back after trauma or failure
  • Strong self-worth, including the ability to take responsibility
  • Good stress management
  • Acceptance of others without blame or judgment
  • Lack of self-judgment
  • A creative outlet
  • Dedication to your truth
  • Inspiring experiences
  • Continuous expansion of awareness

What keeps this from being an exhaustive list is that everything on the list is the result of a conscious life. It is the outcome, not the cause. I’m not diminishing the time and effort people put into each of these areas. But at best, that kind of project works piecemeal, one thing at a time—usually the thing that is giving you trouble, like too much stress or a bad atmosphere at work.

It would be far better to work on everything at once, which is exactly the point of Yoga, the Vedic tradition, Buddhism, and other Eastern systems. The way I look at it is this: You have an ideal life you are meant to live. This life is masked by all the unconscious forces arrayed against you. Yet nothing can actually wipe out your true self. It is the part of you that is entirely conscious and always has been. By getting connected to your true self, you receive the support of a cosmic force known as Dharma. Dharma is the creative intelligence that supports love, compassion, beauty, truth, creativity, inspiration, and insight.

These qualities are innate. Nobody had to invent them. Insofar as you notice these qualities in yourself and try to enhance them, you are connecting to your true self. This isn’t a project that requires discipline and tireless effort. You are simply uncovering and bringing to light who you really are. The goal isn’t to make yourself whole but to realize that you are already whole, not at the ego level but in your essence.

If it became accepted in society to live consciously, in the way people have taken up risk prevention, I believe that lifespan, healthspan, and well-being would advance together on the same front. Short of such massive social change, you are free as an individual to undertake a conscious life. Earlier is better than later, but any time of life is a good place to start.

One factor needs to be confronted squarely. The groove we are in isn’t working except at the lowest level of expectations. Stress, anxiety, depression, unhappy relationships, negative emotions like anger, fear for the future—how much real advance does anyone see in these basic areas of wellbeing? The path to wellbeing is the path of consciousness. Several millennia of human experience validate that truth.

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL

Deepak Chopra The writer is MD, FACP, FRCP founder of the Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global

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