If you estimated your life expectancy based on myriad genetic, ethnic and economic criteria and then portioned out a Jelly Bean for every day you are expected to live, you would have a pile of Jelly Beans representing your life expectancy. If you then took away a Jelly Bean for each day spent doing various tasks you would have the essence of the Jelly Bean analogy. In short, it is a simple yet striking way to visualize the days of your life and how you choose to spend them. Like a kind of candy currency you consume every day and is generally intended to instill a frantic sense of Carpe Diem.
Without exaggeration this writer can honestly say that he made this determination at the age of 15 and has lived life with this in mind ever since. And to what result? Well, to be honest; living your life as though every minute “wasted” is a candy coated regret has been… ironically… a waste. In this case perception is reality! At least for sentient beings. It is the distinction between life as a series of milestones upon which your happiness depends, versus life itself as reason for happiness with a series of milestones used to mark its passing.
That sense that your life is slipping away is directly proportional to your expectations, based on what you value in life. For instance, if you value money, then every hour not spent creating wealth will feel like an unpaid hour, perhaps even an hour that cost you something. Conversely, if you value free time, then every moment spent working is robbing you of your personal freedom. Viewed this way, the carpe diem mentality heightens the burden of expectation which any good Buddhist will tell you is the path to unhappiness. Yet we act on our cultural imperatives which are often determined for profit and which can sometimes blind us to other realities.
For instance ~ Once you realize that there are billions of people who spend every waking hour struggling just to eke out the meagerest of existences ~ it brings into pointy focus the time we squander here in the first world. This deplorable reality doesn’t even include the fact that life spans in the developing world (what we used to call 3rd world) are less than half of the first world average. According to a World Health Organization report of 2012 , the life expectancy of a person from Japan which comes in at number one with an average age of 84.6 (Canada is12th on the list with the UK at 29th and the US at 36th spot) is easily more than twice the lifespan of someone growing up in say Sierra Leone at the bottom of the list who, if they are lucky, can expect to live to the ripe old age of 38.
Even with that bracing statistic in mind, perhaps the most telling aspect of the jelly bean analogy may be that only 500 days on average are spent caring for other people. Considering the atomization of social groups down from village life to apartment life, from large extended families to single parent families is it any wonder that there is a disconnect from a wider sense of community. When weighed against the fact that we will spend upwards of 1800 days surfing the web, 500 days helping others seems trivial. Of course this will vary between people but there is a growing mentality that says you can’t help others until you help yourself. That sounds like sage advice, apart from the fact that it is only true if we live in isolated bubbles. Is it possible for human beings to be happy – truly happy – without continuous and meaningful contact with other people?
Some might be tempted to say yes, but proof to the contrary is well documented and plentiful. As evidenced by Dr. Harry Harlow’s famous 1950’s experiment in which a baby monkey’s mother was replaced with a wire replica. The result (apart from a horrific tale of animal cruelty in the name of science) was that without close and continuous nurturing contact, the monkey became increasingly hostile and erratic towards others of it’s kind, eventually stunted in it’s development it alternated between rocking, listless staring and self mutilation. When presented with a mother figure made of wire which could supply milk but was devoid of tactile comfort, the infant monkey would turn to it for nourishment and then return to the inanimate replica which was padded for comfort.
Or perhaps we need look no further than the effectiveness of solitary confinement and the devastating effects of social isolation on inmates. Dr. Stuart Grassian of the Harvard Medical School has interviewed hundreds of victims of prolonged solitary confinement where he found that a third exhibited active psychosis and or suicidal tendencies as a result. He also found that most suffered from insurmountable social anxiety to the extent that they could not control or initiate social behavior after prolonged isolation.
Leveraging these examples of our social and emotional codependency, we may authoritatively do away with the notion that attending to the needs of others somehow preempts the fulfillment of our own. We are gregarious and as such need to be part of a continuous social feedback loop just to preserve our humanity. So in effect, and without indulging in a form of metaphysical reductionism, it is clear that we can only help ourselves by helping others.
Still, we reach an age where we begin to assess our impact on the world and for some of us we feel as though our contribution has been negligible. Again it comes down to your expectations. For instance, how would you value the contribution of a person who smiles wherever they go and are kind to people; yet will leave behind no visible legacy that the rest of humanity can ascribe to that persons life. No skyscraper named after them, no great theory of physics or great work of art – just a person who did no harm and brought happiness to those around them. Is that a life well spent?
Most of us will live out our lives eating, sleeping, driving and staring at a screen of some sort, but that doesn’t mean we have achieved nothing. This is simply the business of living. 99 percent of all the organisms on the planet are thankful just to be alive, healthy, and to perhaps leave behind fruitful progeny to continue life’s great journey. Both philosophically and practically you can only be said to have wasted your life if you fail to appreciate what gives life value for you.
It’s almost mathematical:
x = That which is valued
y = How often you get what is valued
z = How long you live
a = Appreciation
Good Life = (x * y * z) * a
Seems reasonable right? Yet how does this work if we don’t appreciate what we have:
Good Life = (x * y * z) / a
Most would agree that both the amount and quality of life decreases when applied to the second equation. Here again, perception is reality.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. of the University of California at Riverside has done considerable research on the topic of happiness as it relates to success and has found an interesting correlation between the two. If you look at successful people as measured by their claims, then it seems that happiness precedes success in life – not the other way around as the competitive model of life would suggest!
The analogue being: Happiness is winning a foot race vs. Happiness is running a foot race.
But does happiness help us win a foot race? Even say, life’s ultimate footrace? This would appear to be borne out by the recent analysis of the 11,000 person English Longitudinal Study of Aging conducted in 2002 by the University College London. The follow up analysis by researchers Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle used the original data supplied by 3,853 people between the ages 52 to 79 who reported their moods 4 times daily over a 5 year period.
When this data was compiled the study found that even when you controlled for demographic considerations like health behaviors, mental illness, economic variables etc., people who reported greater PA or positive affect (mood) had death rates significantly lower than people who were consistently more unhappy. This ties the bow between perceived well being and physical mortality which is important when counting out your share of Jelly Beans and how you spend them.
So why do we take so little time to determine if our expectations are reasonable, or even good for us, before we jump on our personal hamster wheel and run to exhaustion? This is a trophy based culture in which process is only relevant when attached to personal achievement. And maybe this is the best lesson we can take away from the Jelly Bean analogy. It’s not what you achieve, or own, or build or fix. It is whether you can say you had a good life in the end. So ask yourself, how do you measure your existence? What do you consider wasted time?
Based on anecdotal evidence, which is the only yardstick that applies to overall perceived life satisfaction, it would seem that those who are happiest with their achievements in life, are those whose pursuits brought them more love. More life. Greater meaning. Deeper connections to people and other forms of life. So when you spread out your count of years, it seems that short of suicide, life is rarely wasted on those who are consciously and gratefully alive. Provided our subsistence needs are met, all other material considerations do not amount to a hill of beans. Or Jelly Beans as the case may be.