Would You Like a Long Life, or a Good Life?

When faced with a choice between two things, I think its’s always sensible to check: can’t I have both?

A long life or a good life. Well, one of the reasons I gave up alcohol and cigarettes is because I wanted more of the good stuff and less of the bad (mornings full of nice sunny feelings; less ruinous regret). There’s no denying vanity played a part (I was looking distinctly haggard) and dark clouds of worry about the state of my health. I wanted to stretch out my time on earth as long as I could. I mean, I really like being here. I’m sure most of us do.

What about the people who make it? What’s the secret to ensuring you get to stick around and see what happens next? Recently I started seeking out interviews with centenarians and collecting their gems of wisdom. And the more I read, the more I got the feeling they’re messing with us.

Sure, I quit the sauce. I sometimes run half-heartedly. I’ve eaten kale more than one time, which is a lot of times to eat kale. I’m also aware that people bop around at optimum health for years and then something really unfair, and tragic, and nobody’s fault, can happen, and they die. Life is pretty barbaric that way. ‘Chance has an empire’, as George Eliot wrote, ‘that makes a fool’s illusion of choice’. You can eat your five a day, sure, but the bleak reality is, it might not help.  I started collecting the advice that centenarians gave whenever they were asked the secret to their longevity, because I noticed something. Their answers. Are often not very serious. I’m yet to find anyone who mentions kale.

Bad Advice from Old People

Susannah Mushatt Jones (who died aged 116) said the key was her daily dose of ‘four strips of bacon’, and a lot of sleep.

Emma Morano, who lived to 117 and was Italy’s oldest person, put her longevity down to staying single (she threw out her ‘dominating’ husband in 1938). And this: ‘I eat two eggs a day, and that’s it. And cookies’.

Compie 114 anni, a Verbania la nonna più vecchia d'Europa
Emma Morano

Christian Mortenson, an American man who lived to 115, advised ‘friends’, ‘a good cigar’, and ‘lots of singing’ helped him trundle through the decades.

This short film is quite incredible, and includes Cliff ‘a spot of whiskey usually helps’ Crozier (who was 101), the absolutely wonderful Amelia Tereza Harper (103) who says of life, ‘everything makes me happy’ – and John Denerley (102… and a half) who says he ‘wasted a lot of time’ having fun, messing around, and listening to jazz on the radio. I challenge you to watch this and not think that life, and people, are amazing.

Jeanne Calment, still the official record-holder for the longest life at 122, smoked cigarettes from the age of 21 to 117. She thoroughly enjoyed chocolates, feasting on ‘sometimes over a kilogram a week’ in her old age. She put it perfectly when she described her life: ‘I took pleasure when I could. I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I was lucky’.

Calment, aged 20, in 1895

This, for me, is the beautiful summation of an absolute absence of mystery. Some people are just lucky. Jeanne Calment’s daughter died of pneumonia at the age of 36, and her grandson died in a car accident when he himself was 36.  Chance has an empire. How strange it must seem to be asked the secret to your longevity, when you have simply kept going.

If I ever do make it to very old age, I will positively delight in telling reporters that the secret is ‘impulsive decisions, taking the moral high-ground, recreational drug use, and holding on tightly to a deep and bitter anger with the whole world’. Maybe I’ll throw in some alarming advice like ‘eat 19 oranges a day’ to start a little fad.

A good life or a long life? Well, only one of those things is under our control. And I guess it’s only a little bit under our control, really. So, be like Jeanne Calment. Eat the chocolates.

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