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Staying young

Three score and ten? We can double that

Jeanne Calment celebrating her 114th birthday in 1989. Gilles Bassignac/Getty Images

Jeanne Calment, the oldest documented human, died in 1997 at the age of 122 in Arles, France. She gave up smoking at 117, but enjoyed a glass of port and some chocolate every day. Will science give us new ways to live happily to her great age and way beyond, asks Ferris Jabr in The New York Times.

The experts are at odds. A recent study concluded that the limit for the average human lifespan was 114.9 years. Another contradicted this, saying that the risk of death plateaus after 80. Other organisms are known to defy ageing, including a 14,000-year-old “clonal colony” of aspen trees in Utah and certain “immortal” species of jellyfish.

As for us, Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, 51, swears by a life-prolonging regimen of the diabetes drug metformin, ice baths, daily exercise and two mostly vegetarian meals a day. He has also partly restored vision to ageing mice by injecting a benign gene-carrying virus into their eyes. Sinclair is pursuing clinical trials on humans and hopes once-a-decade sessions of gene therapy might “reset” the effects of ageing.

But would we want a society with lots of double centenarians? Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe has doubts: “If the Civil War generation were still alive, do you really think that we would have civil rights in this country? Gay marriage?” Perhaps the desire for endless existence reveals a deeper longing, says Jabr – to live a life “long enough to feel utterly perfect and complete”.

The Finnish guide to lifelong happiness

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The World Happiness Report has named Finland the happiest country for four years running. Nobody is more sceptical about this than the Finns, says Jukka Savolainen in Slate. When a Finnish minister was introduced at an international conference with the fact, he said: “If that’s true, I’d hate to see the other nations.” We Finns are reserved and melancholy. We hardly ever smile. Our “spiritual equivalent” to hygge, the Danish concept of “comfortable conviviality”, is kalsarikännit, which means binge-drinking at home, alone, in your underpants.

Our happiness partly comes from low levels of poverty and free, high-quality public services. But, as in other Nordic countries, it’s also down to resolutely modest life expectations. A set of satirical “commandments” known as the Law of Jante sets the tone: “You’re not to think you are anything special; you’re not to imagine yourself better than we are; you’re not to think you are good at anything.” Rather than hygge, Nordic happiness is about lagom, a Swedish and Norwegian word meaning “just the right amount”. If you’ve got “life’s bare necessities”, you’ve nothing to complain about. “Ergo, you are happy.”