Time’s a ticking

The life expectancy of an Australian male is 78.7 years, and for a female is 83.5 years.

It is said that death is the great leveller, but really it is our time alive that puts us on a level playing field. Two people might have vastly different wealth, power, intelligence, or other desirable qualities. However, if those two people are of similar age and health, they will have roughly similar time left available to them in their lives. A hour from one from them is about as precious as an hour from the other.

While exchange rates fluctuate, money one day may be worth half as much the next day, or twice as much. But a person’s time has steady value, and is consumed by them at a constant rate of one hour every hour, while everyone gets the same 24 hours in any particular day.

But it can’t be invested. You can’t deposit a week into a bank, and pull out two weeks later on. The balance of years, that for everyone at birth is roughly the same, can only decrease.

Despite its lack of tangibility, time is probably the most valuable thing that any person can give to another.

Time is very special. But it seems to me, that these days, there is less time to share around. This observation has been given some weight by recent research from Robin Dunbar and Sam Roberts.

Dunbar and Roberts found that while people typically start with five very close friends, after developing an intimate relationship, their friendship group reduces to three very close friends plus the one romantic interest. If the new love was outside the original friendship group, then there are two people who are no longer very close friends. The time consumed by the lover doesn’t leave enough to maintain all the previous relationships at the same level.

I know of people that I’d consider exceptions to this, but in general, it seems to ring true. People have a little less time for close friends when they start serious dating.

Similarly, my personal experience has been that having a young child consumes not insignificant amounts of time, and I certainly don’t spend as much time with friends as I used to. With a second child on the way, I can see more of my 24 hours being spent with the kids than before.

It’s hardly a unique observation. A quick web search picks up similar thoughts elsewhere.

Still, I hope that my old friends don’t feel too badly that I am not chatting to them or seeing them as often as I used to. My only recourse is to fall back to social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter, and blogs too, of course. Through these I can share an, admittedly small, amount of time across a large number of friends.

I also hope they know that the time we share together online is time that I value highly. It may not be as high-bandwidth as time shared in person, but I value every bit.

It would be great to get more time. But from where?

Life expectancy trends show that we’ve gained about an extra 22 years over the last century. This is due to things like decline in infant mortality, better control of disease and treatment of illness, and healthier lifestyles. It will probably continue to increase little by little, but it’s not going get a sudden bump of 20% or more.

A significant amount of our time alive is spent unconscious. Apparently we spend a third of our life asleep, so if some of that could be reclaimed as awake time, as much as 33% more hours would be available to us. Drugs such as Modafinil and Orexin appear to offer such a promise, but it’s unclear what long-term side effects would result from significant reduction in sleep time, and besides it would also devalue the worth of an hour. If they became popular, anyone not taking the drug would have comparatively fewer hours to offer and find time management even more of a struggle.

An alternative, drug-free way that may offer significantly more time in your life is a practice called caloric restriction. The idea is to consume 10% or more fewer calories in a day than average, and this will make you life longer. Or perhaps it will just feel longer. Certainly, it is a risky practice, but apparently has been shown to work with fruit flies, mice, rats, fish and monkeys. Definitive human results have yet to come in, because, of course, we live too long.

If we do manage to find more time, it will be interesting to see whether Dunbar and Roberts’ findings change. Perhaps people will have more friends. Or perhaps they will have more lovers.

In any case, it’s time for me to spend some of my remaining time in some much-needed sleep.

5 thoughts on “Time’s a ticking”

  1. My suggestion: live closer to each other. And to our workplaces, for that matter.

    Seeing a friend this era typically requires at least two hours, probably more, to make it worthwhile. Seeing a neighbour can be done well in fifteen minutes.

    ‘Course, I’m hardly practicing what I preach.

  2. You can subtract about twenty years off that life expectancy for Indigenous Australians…

    I tend to agree with Bob – a big issue is distance – not only physical but in lifestyle & careers etc. – if you live far from someone and don’t keep similar hours and schedules, it’s hard to keep connected.

    I’ve read about disciples of caloric restriction – it’s pretty hardcore & seems to involve a lot of food weighing and a ban on social eating which, to me, would appear to lessen quality of life. I’d rather live well than long but I suppose for most a balance of the two is the goal. It will be interesting to see what future studies of caloric restriction turn up – combined with environmental arguments against eating meat and some other foods I can see it being a ‘thing’ in the future, for some at least.

    Do you think the Internet has a role to play in improving our chances of maintaining quality friendships? Or do you feel it actually detracts from meaningful relationships?

  3. I wonder why two friends that I live some distance from (one significantly more than the other!) are noting the impact of distance? :) Another killer is timezones, too, which makes the east-west distance in some ways more significant than the north-south.

    I think as populations grow, it’s going to be hard to live just a short jaunt away from all of your friends / workmates. Living densities are going to increase, but I suspect this won’t necessarily make it quicker to get around.

    We will probably need to adapt to a qualitatively different level of interactions with friends, mediated by computers and telecommunications. Our daughter sees her grandfather more often over Skype than in person, so perhaps she will grow up very comfortable with the idea.

    It’s not like face-to-face communication is 100% perfect. As well as the need to travel (and its consequent expenses), there’s the need to synchronise schedules (which can add to the delay before it actually happens), and the inability to multitask (which can delay the communication until certain tasks are done). Online communication can be so much more frequent, that it’s no wonder people can establish new friendships this way. Still, it’s very hard to have shared social experiences (dining together, watching movies together, playing sport together) when separated by distance.

    Caloric restriction just sounds awful. Reminds me of that character from Catch-22 who believes he can live longer by having a boring life. It may be true, but then you just have more time spent suffering boredom.

  4. At our age, a somewhat consoling fact is that the average life expectancy is just that, an average – most people die significantly younger or older than the average. And being adults, chances are we are in the significantly-older group.

    Also, another point about caloric restriction is that it has a number of other negative impacts in addition to potentially feeling hungry; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caloric_restriction#Health_concerns – still, an interesting concept.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.