In his seminal book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” author and surgeon Atul Gawande writes about Stanford psychologist Laura L. Carstensen’s research, focusing on her hypothesis: “How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have.”
“When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you ‘the world is your oyster,’ ‘the sky is the limit,’ and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification––to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future. You seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your network of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid––achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization. ’ But as your horizons contract––when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain––your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and people closest to you.”
Among Carstensen’s studies were ones done after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and another after the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003, which killed 300 people over three weeks.
“In each case the results were consistent. When, as the researchers put it, ‘life’s fragility is primed,’ people’s goals and motives in their everyday lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most,” writes Gawande.
In other words, when we can see the finality of our lives, we live differently and make different choices about our lives. That’s why we have Intentional Life Plans.
We humans may walk around with different ideas in our heads of how much time we have left and what we want to do with it. It’s always stunning in our workshops to watch people’s reactions when they see their first visual representation of the rest of their lives. It’s a special moment for people: Having calculated their life expectancy, they’re able to see roughly how many years and decades they have left.
Not many people have had this “aha” moment, and it’s incredibly valuable.
I recently chatted with an alumna of our workshops, a business executive in her mid-40s, who shared how having a visual timeline of her finite lifetime has changed her life: “I realize I don’t want to be in this corporate job the rest of my life. In my 50s I want to live a completely different life. I’ve got to get on it: That’s only five years from now!”
We conducted an unscientific poll on our Facebook and Instagram pages last month asking: “Is life long or short?” Thirty-three percent responded long, while 67% said short.
They’re right: We have only so much time in this human lifetime! We are the amazing result of millions of years of evolution on this earth. What an incredible gift we have been given, so it’s up to us to use our lives––and this very limited amount of time—well.
Let’s all be intentional about how we life our lives always. That may mean you want to take Saturday off and lay on a couch examining your navel (we don’t have to be on the go all the time), spend two weeks helping to get out the vote for a local or national election, or go on an “Outlander” tour of Scotland in the future.
Be cognizant and remember you will die––and make your life happen! And if you haven’t read “Being Mortal,” put it on your book list now.
If you haven’t created your own Intentional Life Plan yet, check out the “Write, Open, Act” workbook for step-by-step details on how to make it happen.