Ellen Langer

I hate to be cynical, but one has to wonder who started the swine flu scare and why. Someone will make a lot of money on the vaccines being developed, someone will prosper by redirecting travel from Mexico to the US, and someone didn’t closely examine the death-rates that typically occur with the flu. Maybe the culprit is among them, maybe not.

On television we can see the scary sight of people with face masks at airports. By making our reactions to this flu so vivid, it seems far more ominous than it really is. The power of making the future a vivid possibility can lead us to over-predicting its likelihood of happening.

The good news is that it can also work to our benefit. Take living to be 100 years old. I think the single person most responsible for our belief in longevity is Willard Scott. For those too young to remember, he was the weatherman on The Today Show who wished an on-air happy birthday—photos and all—to everyone who reached the age of 100. As I discuss in Counterclockwise, making the prospect of living to be 100 seem real creates a positive expectation that people regularly live to be 100. And that goes a long way to increasing our own lifespans.