A Second Life

Check me out. I stand on the threshold of my ‘second life’. I am grateful to science for this moment. Human minds – activated by ingenuity and curiosity, theories and experiments, and research and development, all working across different disciplines – have collaborated to produce what I see spread out before me: a whole new life. I would have been dead by the age of 35, 150 years ago. In 2018, my life expectancy is 82. That’s the equivalent of more than two lives.

In case you missed that, I’ll put it like this: you only live twice. This enables you, living in the 21st century, to do twice as much than was previously possible; or alternatively, some things twice over.

The trend of longevity is set to continue, due to inexorable advancements in science and technology. Together with the natural growth of the population of planet Earth, this has meant that since 1980, the number of people over the age of 60 has doubled. By 2050, 2 billion of the world’s population will be older than 60.

It’s a remarkable human achievement. We can easily miss the remarkableness of it because we’re bogged down with meeting everyday challenges. And then, suddenly, we’re at the threshold of our second life. Longevity has swooped down upon us.

It hasn’t, actually. The advancements of science that have enabled us to live longer have been sidling onto the scene over the last hundred years or so. Extending life is possibly our greatest human achievement (though recent developments may usurp this by bringing a mammoth or Tasmanian tiger ​back to life!). After all, what can be greater than keeping us alive? If we’re dead, there’s no point to any kind of advancement.

Of course, having the potential for a long life is no guarantee that we will experience one. Nature excels at reproduction, but is equally good at extinguishing life. And ​we do a pretty good job at self-destruction: diabetes, heart disease and obesity are on the increase, and violence and poverty are extremely effective at reducing longevity. The message here is simple: ​carpe diem​.
Nor is having quantity of life a guarantee for quality of life. How can we make sure that our second life is more than just a first-life addendum? Where in our possible 263,000 hours of additional living will meaning and purpose arise?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve started thinking, and I’ve been asking some questions.

For me, and millions like me, I arrived sooner than expected at this threshold – not through advanced age, but through financial and family independence. In the future, science and technology innovations, as well as personal lifestyle choices, will mean our second life could commence in our early 40s, while expanding longevity may yet result in us having the equivalent of ​three​ complete lives… but that’s getting ahead of myself.

In previous generations, a second life began at the age of ‘retirement’. But today the notion of retirement is increasingly redundant. Sixty is the new 40. Retirement was once represented by grey hair, a gold watch and a gold card, and days of gentle rest and relaxation. Retirement is dead. We are very much alive.

Our first life purpose is to focus on what Maslow called a hierarchy of needs. First come our physiological needs, which include food, water, warmth and rest; once these have been achieved, we move up through the hierarchy towards self-actualisation – becoming who we are. In practice, this means acquiring friends, a job, a partner, a family and a house. The second life begins when we’ve achieved our first-life objectives. For those without children, the delineation between the first and second life is less clear.

Is long life useful? Who would not want a longer life? Longevity does produce problems, like overpopulation and a burden on economies and the planet’s resources, with the trickle-down effects – no less dramatic – of climate change and inequity. As we age, we are subjected to a range of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and dementia. And then there’s having a lot more time on our hands. This can be more of a problem than you might imagine. It is often the curse of the very old, who linger at the edge of life, awakening each morning with the lonely task of filling their day. I think of my 93-year-old mother. Enough already. This is one tragedy that has crept up on society.

How will I spend the next 30 years? The question is perplexing. What are the wider implications of living two lives? It’s perplexing because, having navigated my way through my first life to the cusp of my future one, I’ve slipped inadvertently into an existential crisis. I am no longer sure I know myself. I’m not the father or husband I once was. The ‘self’ I was in my first life is not transferable to my second life. The only self I know now, is the one that changes with every decision I make and whichever way life circumstances take me. Unsettling? Maybe. On the other hand, I am free to invent and reinvent myself. This second life will be a journey of conscious ‘self’ actualisation. Thank you, Maslow.

I’ve come practically (if not philosophically) well equipped for my new journey. I have a passive income, good health, energy and enough curiosity to wonder: what’s next? The scene ahead promises an endless panorama of rest and recreation, potentially spanning three decades. Thirty years filled with pleasurable pursuits? It sounds like a long-awaited paradise, waking each morning and deciding what enjoyable activity I’ll indulge in for the day.

And yet, a second life devoted only to pleasure seems unsatisfying. Why, I have yet to uncover.

Looking back at my ‘first life’, I see a journey of falling in love, marriage and starting a family. I see establishing a business, getting up each morning to head out and ‘hunt and gather’ with the purpose of providing. I buy a house and deal with the stress of getting in and out of debt, a process that happens several times during my first life. I support my wife and together we nurture our child to independence, so he is capable of directing his own outcomes and, when the time is right, to begin the cycle anew. This is the natural order of things and is my unconscious first life motivation. Eventually, I establish a passive income in anticipation of my second life.

I won’t reproduce again, but why not find a new long-term partner? The fastest-growing divorce demographic on the planet is couples in their 60s. I can see why. Life stresses mount up: careers, children, in-laws and mortgages, can smother romance and intimacy, kindness and fun. You wake up one day, just the two of you, and feel the faded energy, the lack of affection, the boredom of a well-worn routine. You take a long hard look at the next 30 years and think: second life? Why not second wife? The potential of someone new promises a another time when to feel content, all you had to do was walk hand-in-hand along the beach. And (I’ll whisper this) … the sex would be exciting too. Biological mismatches exacerbated by a longer life can leave men capable and wanting or women feeling frustrated. Women, more than men, are filing for divorce during these later years, a result of female empowerment.

At the dawn of my second life, my relationship with my wife has changed. After more than two decades of marriage, we are like the companionable individuals we were before becoming parents, except with less romance and more wisdom under our slightly tighter belts. We have shifted from the model of possessive ownership, often the language of marriage. Still, I don’t want to be a solo operator. I want to walk around the park holding hands, and I make sure our lips meet at least twice a day and that I shuffle across to the other side of the bed for a cuddle – at least for a few minutes each night.

Viewed through the lens of longevity, is the model of long-term relationships and monogamy outdated? Is it ridiculous to imagine that 50 years from now, living vastly extended lives, it would be acceptable to enter and exit multiple relationships, ​even ​if your first one was entirely satisfactory? You would change your partner because you could and because it would feel more in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature. Or perhaps polyamory (having more than one lover at the same time) would be a societal norm, absent of envy and jealousy. In a longer life, monogamy may not be a tenable or useful model.

The average family size in the Western world in 2018 comprises 2.7 individuals. I have six siblings. My son is an only child. New Zealand recently recorded its lowest-ever birthrate in a decade (although the birth rate for women over 40 increased significantly). The implication is obvious. Today’s families are smaller and parents are home alone sooner. We are all galloping towards a longer second life and there is less likelihood that our time will be fully absorbed doting on grandchildren, as increasingly, younger people choose to have fewer children or none at all.

In my second life I’ve begun a new career. Work is not just about necessity or survival anymore. Work occupies a chunk of daily time in a purposeful way – bringing meaning and satisfaction to life. For 25 years, I ran an architectural practice. Several years ago, I began a career as a writer and a photographer. I’ve worked on articles in hotel lobbies and airports, while sipping a short black, or camping in the Australian outback, or in the highlands of Madagascar, tapping away on a screen resting on the handlebars of a stationary bicycle. I’ve sat in saunas and sweated sentences for a piece I’m composing. With many of my stories, I write about the lives of others, so that the reader can vicariously experience a life vastly different from their own. It’s magic. I string together 26 aesthetically beautiful characters that manifest my thoughts, and, ​voilà​, here’s the article you’re reading. And yes, that gives me a sense of wellbeing. Writing and photography form a creative portal, a way to share views and invite people to see things in a different way.

My wife, too, has embarked on a new career that’s unexpectedly booming. She asserts that she’s going to keep working into her 90s. She has entered a new period of independence and personal growth. I’ve watched our relationship change, growing alongside her career trajectory. The fact that she (as well as our son) is far less dependent on me in every way in our second lives is an adjustment I’ve had to make. It’s an unexpected acknowledgement that, outside my world-class complaining about all the stress and effort I endured to care for my family, I secretly thrived on being depended on.

Work is on the decline. What once was science fiction is science fact: robots and AI are taking over jobs (and doing it better), from driving cars to unloading ships, from preparing legal cases to dispensing prescriptions. Machines are able to ‘think’ and make decisions on our behalf. How this will all shake out is a big question. If machines can do most of our work – better, faster, safer and cheaper – how does that change a society built around work? If we are not being paid to work, where will all our money come from? And what do we do with all the time we once spent working?
Longevity has its origins in science and technology. The innovations continue to astound. Swimming microbots, half the width of a human hair, shaped like corkscrews and guided by software, can enter the femoral artery through a small incision near the groin, head to the aorta and grind away plaque, then release drugs into the bloodstream to prevent future build-up. If it’s too late for this cholesterol chomping bot, a ‘total artificial heart’ has recently been tested in humans, with encouraging results. Developed by an eminent French physician (still working in his ​ninth decade), the prosthetic, made from synthetic and animal tissue, mimics the human heart in rhythm and shape, and is powered by electromagnetic induction.

Robots the size of bacteria can trawl with relentless dedication through the arterial network of our bodies, monitoring for anything untoward. IBM’s ‘Doc Watson’ is a massive supercomputer that harnesses the collective medical global intelligence, ‘reading’ a million research papers, mining the internet for information, scanning and interpreting thousands of historical hospital X-rays and applying this big data and its AI to a single patient, proposing a diagnosis and treatment superior to any expertly trained unaided physician.

CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, is the world’s greatest science revolution, one that enables us to change the course of nature and evolution. It’s an editing tool that allows precise changes to be made to DNA. It means we can get rid of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and cancer. CRISPR can alter the make-up of a foetus so as to avoid Alzheimer’s or diabetes.

Research suggests that living longer is not a slow and unhappy decline towards the valley of death. In fact, people are happier at 70 than they are at 40. Happiness across a lifetime goes something like this: from 18, happiness begins a descent, as youth encounters life’s challenges. These include establishing who they are and what they want to do, i.e., a career, finding their true place in the world, seeking the right partner and starting a family. Happiness starts to improve once the children have left home. And, from there, it’s a steady climb back towards the kind of happy you were at 18, to then surpass that level, as life presents much less urgency and fewer demands.

Pleasure. What’s the go there? Turns out it’s about ​dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that manage ​your happiness and wellbeing. ​Dopamine activates pleasure, which is vital to happiness. The dopamine/pleasure relationship is tenuous. If accessed regularly (say, via alcohol), it requires ever-increasing doses. Continual hits of pleasure find ultimate expression in addiction. Here’s where you remember a lesson from your grandmother, who gained her wisdom through life experience (now backed up by science): “everything in moderation, dear.” She also cautioned you that pleasure never lasts. Enter the serotonin solution.

Serotonin mediates satisfaction, contentment and optimism, having a lingering effect on wellbeing. Don’t dump dopamine – but make sure you build up serotonin. This may well be the guide for enjoying longevity.

My list for second-life serotonin:

Show empathy. This means considering other people’s feelings and emotions. You are probably on the right track, as all of us, according to research, are becoming increasingly more empathic. In a surprise twist, technology plays a role here. Big data (having access to a lot more information) and big communication (the internet, smartphones, etc.) have increased our capacity to connect and collaborate with others. We’ve become more aware of the reality of other people’s lives. It’s expanded our consciousness and our empathy.

Here’s how empathy can work. Listen to ​anyone’​s story. I’ve listened to people’s stories in a banya (Russian sauna) or at a bus shelter in India. I recently shared a difficult moment of my life with an Uber driver. He listened quietly, asked a few questions, then blurted out: “Shit, man! Really?!” I felt heard. Before I got out, he reached over, grabbed my hand and said: “everything’s gonna be all right, mate.” He drove off. I felt lighter.

Give without seeking any return. It’s called altruism, and humans dish out lots of it. It goes way beyond reciprocity. We give for the sake of giving, the act being the reward. We give to people we might never meet, who have no possibility of repaying our kindness. Take, for example, a non-directed kidney donor. These are people who join a kidney transplant donor programme but ​don’t know anybody who needs a kidney. They just want to help somebody. Pause for a moment and think about gifting one of your kidneys. Would you?

We may be motivated by responding to a fellow human’s desperate state. Or perhaps we are thinking about contributing to the kind of society we want to live in. This implies a level of self-interest. Is altruism motivated by acts of concealed selfishness? Who cares? Such a scenario would not undo the goodness or wellbeing derived from altruism.

Begin an upward spiral of kindness. Kindness is like a muscle: it grows stronger the more you exercise it. The more someone benefits from a kind act or is a witness to one, evidence shows, the kinder they become themselves. That’s an upward spiral of wellbeing that sends out waves of calm, smoothing out the wrinkles in society. To keep kindness fit, consider exercising daily.

Make someone else happy. The most reliable route to sustained personal happiness and wellbeing is to bring happiness to other people. Early populations of hunter-gatherers grouped together because there is safety in numbers. It’s still that way. We benefit from being in a society. It makes sense, then, that making others happy will make us happy.

Check this out: in January 2018, I go in search of serotonin. It starts in Kenya. I’ll travel to a township called Kitale and meet a group of volunteer surgeons. In a temporary hospital, they’ll provide cleft palate reconstructive surgery for forgotten children, teenagers and even adults. No longer stigmatised by disfigurement, this life-changing surgery will allow them to reintegrate back into society. My role is to photograph them, pre- and post-op, and write their personal stories. If all goes to plan, these stories will trigger empathy and kick start an upward spiral of kindness. And I’ll self-actualise and be all the happier for it.

I’ll keep you posted.