The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).

Ending Net Asset Value; or, Hook up, hat up, and let go: “Calling Dr. Bartleby!”

Atul Gawande is a Harvard trained surgeon who writes eloquent prose on health and illness. His New Yorker pieces “Letting Go” and “The Way We Age Now” are full of pathos, ethos, and logos on how and when to die decisions and the bedpan reality of growing old. If he continues his work combining writing, doctoring, and educating, he may some day be up for a Nobel Prize. Gary Becker is a Nobel Prize winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago who writes in his blog, The Becker-Posner Blog, pedestrian prose sometimes infected with either-or fallacies. He shares weekly blog posts with Federal Judge and University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Posner.

What usually passes for health care in our current reasoning is health care insurance. Those with insurance believe they have health care; those without may think they have neither. And the health care debate is derailed with decisions before legislators that have to do not so much with health care but with health care insurance.

Last Sunday, Becker included in his post what appears to be an economist based claim that includes a formula for calculating the value of a year of life: “Presumably, frail elderly people tend to receive less utility from a year of their current life since their lack of health prevents them from greatly enjoying their leisure time and consumption of different goods. However, the utility cost of any time and money they might spend on prolonging their lives is also lower for them. The fundamental measure of the value of a life year is the ratio of the utility gained to this marginal utility spent on prolonging life. This ratio could even be higher for the old and frail than for healthy younger persons.”

We are becoming increasingly Spartan by the moment, for the reductio ad absurdum of Becker’s argument would have us carrying individuals of any age whose disabilities or frailties preclude utility or whose cost to live outweighs their ability to “enjoy their leisure time and consumption of different goods” out to the rocks to die, as did the Spartans.

“Welcome to the 23rd Century: The Perfect World of Total Pleasure,” heads the poster for the sci-fi film “Logan’s Run,” which depicts a dome-covered society that eliminates growing old problems by zapping all citizens when they turn the age of 30. The police, called Sandmen, hunt down and kill those who would run from their forced to die moment. Yet there’s a myth, an old story, of life beyond the dome, where people are allowed to grow old. The place where people are allowed to grow old is called Sanctuary.

But there appears to be no Sanctuary for our elderly these days, at least not provided for by Medicare, for there’s simply not enough money to go around, the Becker-Posner argument seems to go, and we should spend what money there is to go around on those able to enjoy life and consume goods. Perhaps enjoying life, in the worldview of the economist, is consuming goods. In any case, the argument has been boiled down to an either-or moment: either we let old people grow old and die sooner than they would with life prolonging health care (including the R&D necessary to develop that care), or we go broke.

But there are other solutions. Yet there is another problem with Becker’s formula: the value of an old person’s life is not necessarily limited to what that person can enjoy or consume; the lives of the elderly may have intrinsic value to others. But not, apparently, to young doctors, for Gawande points out the current dearth of young doctors going into gerontology. There’s a shortage, and there’s no short-term remedy to what will be an ongoing need for specialists to treat the elderly. Gawande’s solution is for every health care practitioner to be versed in basic elderly care issues.

But to be fair to Becker and Posner this week, they do focus on quality of life versus quantity of life and the avoidable invasions of quality by a system not guided by health care concerns but by health care insurance. And Atul Gawande does also question quality versus quantity. What separates Gawande’s argument from Becker-Posner’s is his value of human life expressed in human versus econometric terms. It’s one thing to force someone to die at the age of 30; but is it something else again to force, or even to encourage, that same person to live beyond what most of us, including our ancestors, would recognize as living? Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Doctor!

Related: An Object Lesson in Health and Happiness