The Easiest Way to Live a Short Unimportant Life

A recent article in the New York Times shared research on longevity that revealed that the people who live the longest not only live healthy lifestyles, but also tend to engage and connect with the people around them. They visit their neighbors. They teach classes in town. They pass down traditions to their children.

In other words, they contribute to the world around them.

The article didn’t come out and say it, but what it alluded to was that as people age, they tend to find themselves consuming more and creating less. To put it bluntly: the easiest way to live a short unimportant life is to consume the world around you rather than contribute to it.

Meanwhile, the people who keep on contributing tend to be the ones who keep on living. The message was clear. People who contribute to their community live longer.

But why is this true? And how can you apply it to your own life?

How Do Prisoners of War Stay Alive?

Prisoners of war who have managed to survive the most brutal conditions will often claim one of the most important factors in survival is not food or water, but a sense of dignity and self–worth. In other words, the only thing that keeps some men alive in the most dire of circumstances is the belief that they are worthy of being alive.

Applying this to our daily lives, it makes sense that longevity would be prevalent in cultures where contribution is baked into everyday life. For example, let’s take a culture where it’s common to go to your neighbor’s house and talk each night. During a face–to–face conversation, you have to either contribute or sit silently in the corner like a weirdo.

The act of contributing to a conversation, no matter how simple it seems, allows you to derive a small sense of self–worth. Being a meaningful part of conversation makes you feel like were a worthwhile part of your neighbor’s life. When you add up all of your small contributions to the many conversations over the years, it’s easy to see how you can develop a strong sense of self–worth when you live in a culture where contribution is typical.

You alter the course of other’s lives by what you create and contribute. When you speak or write or act, you influence the people around you. When you contribute something to the world, you matter. And thus the act of creating enhances your feelings of self–worth.

That’s important and it’s often lost online. It’s becoming increasingly easy to spend our time consuming rather than contributing. Smartphones, iPads, and Kindles. Twitter and Facebook. The web in general. Most of the time we spend on those devices and networks is spent consuming what someone else has created rather than contributing our own ideas and work.

The result, I believe, is that our sense of self–worth slowly dwindles and our lives become less healthy, less happy, and less meaningful.

Make Something

When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

As you know, this website is not only about living a long, healthy life but also about doing something with it. And this new research is great news if you’re looking to make a difference. Creating and contributing to the world is not only a foundational piece of living a healthy and happy life, but also a meaningful one.

You can’t control the amount of time you spend on this planet, but you can control what you contribute while you’re here. These contributions don’t have to be major endeavors. Cook a meal instead of buying one. Play a game instead of watching one. Write a paragraph instead of reading one. You don’t have to create big contributions, you just need to live out small ones each day.

Too often we spend our lives visiting the world instead of shaping it.

Be an adventurer, an inventor, an entrepreneur, an artist. Suggest your own ideas instead of reacting to everyone else’s. Be an active participant in life and contribute to the world around you. Make good conversation. Make good art. Make good adventure. But above all, make something.

Contributing and creating doesn’t just make you feel alive, it keeps you alive.

14 Comments

  1. Loved your article! I am a nurse and in my dealings with the elderly I have found that they have so much to contribute! But if they are told there is nothing more we can do for you, mostly because insurance won’t pay anymore because they are too old to get it done, they start to sink into the “I’m not worth anything” mode. I have found that, however, if you start asking them about things they are knowledgeable, all of a sudden they become involved, more alert, and a smile comes to the face! All of my grandparents kept involved and contributed up until the last years. I loved them so much and they were great examples!

    • Thanks for sharing, Loretta. It’s great to hear that this holds true in your experience in the health profession as well as outside the hospital. Feel free to share your thoughts here anytime.

  2. Hi James,

    Great article. We must contribute our part in shaping the world around us and in influencing or making an impact that matters to others’ lives. This will not only lead to fulfillment but also a healthier life.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Jennifer

      • Great point, Jennifer. I couldn’t agree more. Just get started and contribute.

        Small enough to do it now. Meaningful enough to make a difference.

  3. I find that a life based on service is the ultimate way to live. I recently found another young web designer who figured this out. She was finding that serving certain clients gave her more satisfaction. After a few clients like this and other inspired moments in her life, she changed the byline of her business to “web dev for good”. (She is the designer/developer of http://yellowrubberball.com and I met her at the 2012 “indieconf” in Raleigh, North Carolina.)

    I celebrate this. As a web designer who has completed 43 joyous years (so far) in the web and print design business, I too learned this realization, devoted my career to educational materials and non-profit organizations, and experience joy and exhilaration on a daily basis. I know I mattered. I felt the value people felt in my work. The joy has been endless. I am as exhilarated and happy each day of work today as I was back in my 20s and I’m thriving at 62 like that famous bunny.

    Giving keeps you young. Yes, indeed!

    Thank you for presenting this good story again to the world James!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Pepper. Service is one of the central values of this community. I often say that your impact can only be as big as your willingness to serve. It’s wonderful to hear that service has been the cornerstone of your career and success.

      Please come back and share your thoughts at anytime.

      p.s. The web designer you’re referring to is none other than my friend Katie Benedetto. She’s great!

  4. Just joined your community, so firstly would like to say Hey Everyone! :)

    Loving the article – simple, but thought provoking. Would make an interesting experiment to commit to do at least a single contribution every day for 30 days and journal personal well-being, I’d suspect some mind blowing revelations.

    So how about I start this morning by contributing a simple ritual used to building healthy self-esteem – Compliment Other People! Works like magic and is kinda in spirit with the article.

    Have a great day
    Darius

    • Darius — welcome to the Becoming Better community. It’s great to have you here. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the future.

  5. Great article James. I particularly like the line, “Play a game instead of watching one.” I live by this statement and rarely watch any sports on TV. I try and play as many of them like soccer, volleyball, ultimate and rugby. I’m tired of everyone watching hockey and football and not doing anything.

    • Ross — first, thanks for taking the time to read. And more importantly, it’s awesome that you’re so focused on living a physical life. We’ve got a great community here and it’s so helpful for others to be able to see people like yourself carrying the banner for what it means to live a healthy life.

      Feel free to drop a line here anytime. I’m looking forward to connecting more with you.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of this article James! I too often find myself engrossed in reading something that I become an information consumer and nothing more. We can forget that our contribution may resonate with someone else in the world.

    On the more general point of dignity and self-worth I think there is much to be said about the loss of our everyday social serendipity – by relegating face time and spending more time digesting information on the screen we are alienating a very important psychological function – i.e. human interaction and empathy. In a world of emoticons and status updates, where the emotion is represented in pixels I think this has sapped our everyday ability to share emotional experience.

  7. This article reminds me of a survey that has been held a few years ago and allegedly proved that married people live longer; turned out this applied only for happily married ones, not for the many who were trapped in an unhappy marriage which even shortened their life expectancy and made them susceptible to all kinds of diseases.

    Your article applies for some people, the social, gregarious, extrovert ones, and even if they may still pose the majority, they are by no means the only people on this planet.

    The population also consists of those who were actually smart enough to avoid adding to the problem of overpopulation, hence didn’t reproduce, and those who prefer being alone, who are interested in books and objects rather than people (so–called things–people as opposed to people–people), who don’t want to socialize but instead devote their lives to their work, studies, projects, science, or art.

    It is very biased to not only exclude this part of the population but, worse yet, portrait their way of life as undesirable and even unhealthy.

    If I were being forced to hang out with people, I’d much rather die before retirement than get old.

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