How to Extend Your Life - 8 Lessons From Seneca
How do we extend our lives? It is the ultimate question of our age. Scientists are always experimenting with new ways to prolong life, but in my opinion this problem can be solved with simple philosophies.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca was a master at the art of extending life. His ideas and teachings on this subject are timeless and actionable, and we would all do well to learn from his words. So without further ado, here are eight of my favorite lessons from Seneca on life extension.
Lesson One: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but we are wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”
There is ample time in our lives if we will use it correctly. There is no point in complaining that there is not enough time to do all that we want to, because we have exactly the same amount of time as any other person on earth, and if we will simply learn to use what time we have we will realize that we need not extend our mortality, but we must instead become more resourceful with what we have. Our success in life has very little to do with our resources, and much to do with our resourcefulness.
Seneca's analogy of the wealth given to a bad owner is very insightful. When a person wins the lottery it is most times the case that they return to their previous level of wealth within a few months or years of the win. This is because they have not yet learned how to use their money, and so they squander it. A seasoned handler of wealth knows the tricks and tactics that will squeeze the juice out of any money, and so they not only get longer use out of what they have, but they increase their wealth. So it is with time and life; if we will learn how to use our time properly we will never feel like we haven't had enough, and the enjoyment and vitality of our life will increase with its use.
We must devote our time to important and fulfilling activities that will give us the experience of living. Those who spend their lives in a constant routine of boring and meaningless activities will soon find that they have become drones; never experiencing true life. It is not a long life that we are after, but instead the feeling of a full life; a life well lived.
Lesson Two: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
Why is it that we place so much importance on physical objects and possessions? These are the things we can get at any moment. The one thing that we cannot buy is time, yet we place such little value on it. Start placing a higher value on your time. It is priceless and non-renewable, so don’t be careless with the places, activities, and people who you give it to.
Lesson Three: “You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply - though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”
Always remember that you will not live forever. Ask yourself every day; “If I were going to die today, would I be doing what I’m doing now?” This is an incredibly empowering question as it can immediately get your mind thinking about what is truly important to you, and what will bring you the most meaning and fulfillment. We will all die, and we do not have the luxury of knowing when, so always assume that today could be your last.
Lesson Four: “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
Often our fears are all that are standing in the way of our success, but we justify our cowardly actions with the idea that bad things may happen, even death. We use death as an excuse to not live! Then, when we are faced with vices or pleasures we act as if we will never die, and we never fix ourselves or grow because we are constantly procrastinating. “I cannot fly in a plane, what if it crashes?” Isn’t obedience to fears just another form of death? A spiritual death? “I’ll start exercising tomorrow. Today, let me be a glutton!” But tomorrow you may be gone, now is the time to act and become a better version of yourself. When you die let life find you becoming better, not wasting away. Let life find you overcoming obstacles and fears; courageously moving forward to a better and more full existence.
Lesson Five: “You will hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?”
Don’t put off until tomorrow what should be done today. Our lives should not be spent waiting for retirement. We should work so that we can live; not live so we can work. Even the heart knows that it functions best under the ratio of one part work, two parts rest. You don’t know if you will make it to retirement, so why would you spend your life preparing for something that is both uncertain, and achievable now? Your days should be spent experiencing all the joys of life; work, rest, adventure, excitement, and love. These are not things that can be postponed.
Lesson Six: “Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”
We must be devoted to living for ourselves, at least most of the time. The person who says yes to everyone's requests will soon find that they have no time of their own, and that they are living for other people, not themselves. He is happy who fills his time with activities that are valuable and meaningful to his own vision of his life. Be careful with the time that you give to other people. Yes, time spent in service is often the greatest time spent, but be sure that you are not living for other people. This is your life, so live it how you want to, otherwise you will find that everyone has benefited from your time but you.
Lesson Seven: “But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”
In other words, if we are to extend our life we must have enough tact to remember the lessons of the past so that we can be more effective today, be present in this moment so that we can experience all that it has to offer, and be bold and courageous in our march towards a brighter future, fearing only the things that will cause us to waste time that could have been spent living.
Lesson Eight: “It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire with great toil what they must keep by greater toil.”
Simple is best for the person who wishes to extend his life. Often it is the most affluent in society who waste their life away, for they have purchased and obtained more than they can handle. Be careful not to fill your life with items or possessions that will take your time away from the important things. You want to buy a second home in another country, but will it not require much more of your time and effort once you have bought it? Couldn't you rent a home every time you go there? Most people spend their lives working so that they can buy golden handcuffs for themselves. Yes, they are gold, but they are also tying you down. Most of the things that we think we need will only bring greater struggle to our lives. Everything that we need to be happy and live a fulfilled life can be acquired with little toil.
As Seneca says, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Consider that we don’t need more time, but we need to make better use of our time. This is the only way to truly extend ones life. The intelligent and industrious person will look back on his or her life, no matter how long, and feel content with the fullness and richness of the time spent. Once we accept these truths we will be on our way to experiencing an abundant rise to the good life.