How to add years to your life

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Are you interested in adding years of happiness and fulfillment to your life? If you answered "yes" -- after all, most people probably would -- there's a pretty simple way to do this, but it requires changing one very ingrained habit: Turn off the TV.

Let's take a look at why I recommend this. Surveys have said that the average American spends anywhere from 2.8 to 4 hours each day watching TV. For the sake of this exercise, let's just call it three hours per day.

The remaining average life expectancy for a 60 year-old is 22 years if you're a man and 25 years if you're a woman, according to the mortality tables prepared by the Society of Actuaries. Translated to hours, this average 60 year-old man has 192,720 hours of life remaining of which 24,090 will be spent in front of the boob tube. The average 60 year-old woman has 219,000 hours of life left, of which 27,375 will be spent watching television.

This many hours spent watching TV would be OK if it truly gave you happiness and satisfaction with life. Studies are showing, however, that watching television may give you temporary pleasure, but it doesn't offer the long-term benefits that being more socially active and engaged with life can offer.

As a result, I suggest you only watch one hour per day: Keep your favorite TV shows and eliminate the rest. You'll gain two hours each day that you could then spend talking with your spouse, friends, or relatives, listening to music, pursuing hobbies, taking care of your health, volunteering to help your community, or pursuing any other activity that research shows gives people joy and happiness. This change of habit gives the 60 year-old man an additional 1.833 years of activities that should give him more fulfillment, while the woman gains 2.083 years.

If we apply this thinking to younger ages, a 50 year-old will gain about three extra years of happiness, and a 40 year-old will gain almost four extra years.

But adding years of happiness isn't all you might gain. Recent research suggests that if you turn off the TV, you might extend the actual time you're alive; one study suggests that every single hour spent watching TV after the age of 25 shortened the viewer's life expectancy by 22 minutes.

Turning off the TV set also means you'll likely spend less money on stuff you don't really need, since you won't be brainwashed as often by the commercials you see. You can then put this extra money to good use, say, by investing it for your future.

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Want to be part of the one percent? One study shows that just one percent of U.S. households has no television set. My wife and I belong to this one percent. Instead of sitting and watching television, we take long walks together, spend lots of time with friends and family, read books, go dancing, and participate in other projects and activities that interest us. In other words, we live it up!

Here's one more useful way to spend the time you gain giving up watching TV: Plan for your retirement, increasing the odds that you'll have enough money to last for the rest of your life. By making this life shift, you'll have more money, live life to the fullest, have better relationships, and be more interesting. What more could you ask?

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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