A Dog’s Life: How to Live Life to the Fullest

I haven’t written any posts lately because I’ve been sad. Incredibly sad.

My Jack Russell terrier and constant companion, Rabbit, died on December 11 of heart failure. She was 15. And I miss her terribly.

Her death has made me think about happiness, and how fitness can play a part in sustaining it. It can play a large part, and you may well need it, if you are reading this.

Our mental state varies across our lifespans, and we are least happy/most unhappy in the middle of our lives.

“Psychological well-being is U-shaped through life,” the economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald maintain. They have even come up with an age for peak unhappiness: 46.

That, if we live to 92, is exactly mid-age. The mid-life crisis is not imaginary, it is a very real thing, and thoughts of life and death have a lot to do with that. So we must work on our physical and, yes, mental strength to cope with these thoughts in the mid-years of our lives.

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Rabbit lived to the ripe old age, for a Jack Russell, of 15. A long and largely happy life, like we all hope to live.

Coincidentally, I am 46. Rabbit’s life made me very happy. Her death has not. Perhaps because a dog is in your care, depends on you, and loves you without condition, it feels like the dog’s death hurts more than if a human relative of mine had died. Other dog owners understand. They have been very sympathetic.

Yes, I had a dog named Rabbit. She was so called because she had a pink nose when she was little, that looked a little like a rabbit. She was about the size of a rabbit as a puppy, too. Plus when she was born, in 2002, the Eminem movie 8 Mile had just come out, and he’s called Rabbit as a young man. He is a tough fighter like Rabbit, and a wordsmith like me, too.

It fit.

I had thought a lot about what would happen as Rabbit aged, and what it would mean when she died. How sad I would feel. How it would inevitably happen. Mindfulness teaches us not to develop too strong an attachment to any worldly thing. Clinging to them is like clinging to a log in a river. Eventually you, and the log, get swept away.

I know that. But no amount of mental preparation and philosophy can get you ready for the actual moment when a loved one moves on. It still hurts. I guess that’s good. If it didn’t, it means you didn’t care. Now I must remember all the fond moments, the times Rabbit nuzzled the ball-ball to me so I would play with her. She would do this over and over again until I was sick of it. Now I wish it had never stopped.

Ageing plays a large part in people’s happiness. At some stage, we become aware of our own mortality. For me, that came at the age of 10 when I realized my childhood pet, another Jack Russell called Smudge, would almost certainly die before I did. And sure enough, she did, when I was at college.

It can be depressing to see time pass. Remember how, when you’re little, you can’t wait to get old? Every birthday is cause for a huge celebration! One year bigger!

That stops of course, and at some point we start disliking the passage of time. For me, it happened around the age of 24. I had graduated from college, was out in the working world, living on my own and could do what I want. “This is fine, I want to stop here, and just not get any older,” I thought.

But we can’t pause time. It keeps going, incessantly. My grandmother had a ticking grandfather clock in her home in Westonaria, a mining town on “the Reef” in South Africa’s gold-mining region, around 45 minutes outside Johannesburg. Now, when I think about it, I don’t know how she could stand it. Tick, tick, tick, a constant trickle of time dribbling through your fingertips, like water you can’t hold. That grandfather clock outlived my grandfather, that’s for sure. He smoked, did little exercise that I recall, and died of emphysema at the age of 72. It’s probably still ticking out there, somewhere, haunting the living somewhere else.

In Britain, one in three babies born now will live past 100. Around the world, 1.5 billion people will be over the age of 65 by 2050, triple the number now.

Think about what that will look like for a second. Millions and millions of people will be centenarians, 6.5 million in Britain alone. And grey hair will be everywhere.

What will your life be like? Will you be a “superager?”

It’s possible you will be scuba diving at 73, like the superfit Dutchman I dived with in Boracay. You could be sky diving at 75. In your 80s you could be running the 100 meters only 7 seconds slower than the fastest Usain Bolt has ever run.

That’s what 84-year-old Irene Obera can do. She runs the 100m in 16.81 seconds. Bolt once ran it in 9.58 seconds, in Berlin, in 2009, once. So Obera, a former teacher and school administrator in Berkeley, California, is 7.23 seconds outside the fastest time ever set in the history of the world.

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Humans are one of very few species on earth that can mourn the passage of people and time. A mindful approach teaches us to live in the moment and recall the past fondly, but not too much. 

She is also incredibly mentally sharp. You can see her in action. Check out this quite amazing short story about ageing from the BBC.

How does she do it? She stays active, mentally and physically. She plays tennis three times a week. Bowls two or three times a week. And goes to the track three times.

“You have to move it, or you’re gonna lose it,” Obera says, quoting her father, who was from the Philippines. Age “is just a process. So why not live?”

Many of us, however, do not. We are paralyzed by ageing, and get depressed, and locked into our heads, and our little lives, actually refusing to live them to the fullest.

The anthropologist Ernest Becker talked about our initial “denial of death,” the process that happened to me around the age of 10. We start thinking about death, and most of us come up with an “immortality project” so that we don’t die. I settled on writing, which will outlive me. And now, like many people, I also have kids, another form of immortality.

Ernest Becker achieved a form of immortality through his book The Denial of Death. Funnily enough, he won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Two months after he died, of colon cancer, at the age of 49.

But our denial of death can be a problem. At some point a little later after designing our immortality project, we often come to a “denial of life.” This is a time when we become so concerned about death that we get paralyzed by it and stop living life to the fullest. People with depression, Becker said, are often frustrated in their immortality project, and fear it’s going to fail, leaving them constantly thinking about their mortality.

I love the Lonely Island, a comedy music group that spun out of the show Saturday Night Live. They do a hilarious song with Adam Levine from Maroon 5 called YOLO, as in You Only Live Once, in which the singers get so obsessed with the fragile nature of life that they don’t go outside in case a piano falls on them, wrap themselves in straight jackets so they don’t cut themselves with scissors and bleed to death, take out all their teeth so they can’t choke, and generally have a miserable time.

You get the picture. The point is that we should not get too distracted by our immortality project, or too depressed about our own mortality, meaning we fail to actually live life.

That’s what Obera, the 84-year-old track star, means when she says “age is just a process, so why not live?” Do not get hung up about your own age, the deaths of others, your own gradual procession towards the grave. Think about the life you have to live in the meantime. Enjoy the lives of those around you while you have them. Live in the moment, and make the most of life now, which is precious, while you are lucky enough to have it.

I find exercise immensely helpful in this process. There’s nothing to make you feel quite more alive than exercise. It brings you back to the real world, away from your immortality project and your morbid thoughts. In fact, exercise is kind of the opposite of an immortality project, a project on the very here and now.

I love the works of the zen monk and mindfulness advocate Thich Nhat Hanh – even if I keep having to look up how to spell his name! He has a wonderful book Happiness, which I would encourage everyone to read. It has changed my approach to life.

I was a morbid child, morbid young adult, morbid man in mid age for quite a while. I didn’t see the point in a lot of things in life. Why care? We’ll just die anyway.

Now, at the age of 46, exactly when I should feel at my most unhappy, I feel probably happier than I ever have in my life. I am certainly at the fittest that I have ever been.

That makes me feel very good, physically and mentally. I am prepared to live life right now, making the most of each moment, trying to live in the present.

I will remember Rabbit always. Mindfulness teaches us also to welcome sad emotions, accept them for what they are. They move on. People do. Pets do. Good and bad times do.

We all do. It is what we do in the meantime that matters.

That’s life.

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