A Different New Year’s Resolution: Doing Well for Others

For the New Year, we often make specific resolutions: Lose weight, get exercise, work harder (or work less), and so on. If we ask the oldest Americans, we might hear them endorse something more general: Resolving to be more compassionate.

Many elders thought of happiness in terms of compassion and service to others. Carmen, 80, has lived a very full life, and has thought deeply about the sources of  happy living. Her advice is to focus on others and to carefully consider the effects of our actions.

This is my response about the most important lessons I have learned in my life. I am an 80 year-old woman and have been married for 56 years. I graduated from law school, practiced law for five years, and then left the practice to raise a family.

The single most important lesson that I have learned is that personal happiness depends on doing the best you can for the people to whom you owe a duty. The best attitude with which to approach life is to recognize that what others do to you does not matter. What counts is what you do to others. The greatest enemy of one’s own happiness is guilt about one’s own actions. All of our life choices should be guided by the goal of avoiding decisions that will make us feel guilty.

The greatest waste of time is to worry about how others may have mistreated oneself. The actions of others are their problem alone. The best use of our lives is to discharge our duties with joy and to recognize that we can only be truly happy when we do as well as possible whatever we undertake to do. With the caveat that one is not engaging in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, what counts in life is not what one does, but how well one does it. The lowliest job done properly is more gratifying than the most elevated activity done poorly, and when both activities are done well, they are of equal value.

The best guiding principle for achieving a guilt-free life is to adopt philosopher Immanuel Kant’s imperative to treat everyone as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end and to never take any action which you would not want all people in a similar situation to take. As I near the end of my own life, my only regrets are about the things I might have done better and those things all relate to the happiness of others. There is no such thing as personal happiness divorced from the happiness of others. We cannot be truly happy when we cause unhappiness to others.

Home for the Holidays? Here’s Wisdom on How to Enjoy It

It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come together to celebrate the seasonal holidays. If popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children (and in-laws) look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along. My surveys of approximately 2000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Christmases or Hanukkahs. Here’s their elder wisdom for how families can have a harmonious holiday together.

Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion

When you are together at the holidays, the elders advise, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. The elders’ advice: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).

Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans put her foot down: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” The elders recommend applying this same rule to other “hot-button” issues  When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, “just saying no” to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.

Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at the Holidays

When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don’t interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me: “Give your kids their own lives. Don’t make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don’t tell them what to do.” Joyce, 90, agreed: “It’s their life. It’s not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they’ll come to me.” Christmas dinner is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.

Don’t Take Everything Personally 

The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule: “Rather than assume the worst, it’s more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can’t change the way they deal with others in their life.” Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.

Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It

This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Christmas gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen said: “You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them.” According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the mince pie with a minimum of stress.

 

Some Reflections for the Holiday Season: Samuel’s List for Living

We always love what we call “Lists for Living” we receive from elders. As we enter the holiday time, Samuel’s list of advice for younger people has many points to ponder.

It is with a sense of gratitude and gratification that I take the opportunity to express the feelings and thoughts which I gathered over the years. I am hopeful that the younger readers will appreciate these experiences. I am 87 years old, male, boasting an active mind, with healthy body, sound vision and using my own set of teeth.

 Family

            Family life has been the established group living for centuries. There is no substitute for that in terms of gratification, self-worth, and completeness. It provides the best combination for physical, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. At the end of the day, I could say: I am glad to be alive. Of course, I was fortunate to have found an ideal mate.

 How to Succeed

            To succeed in any art or endeavor, one must love it passionately and that comes with the admiration of the masters who had contributed to its development.

 Making Decisions

            Do not decide on major matters at abnormal times, places, or moods. Try to be alone in a calm and secluded place, away from the environment which caused the problem. You will then discover or uncover an inspiring solution.

 Prepare Yourself An Alternative

            When you face a situation which seems difficult or impossible to resolve, despite a persistent perseverance, do not get discouraged. Instead, find an alternative to lean on. This will help you face the problem with a positive solution and avoid the feeling of disappointment. It works!

 Heed Your Feelings and Thoughts

            Your instincts are worth pursuing all the way towards achievement. If you cannot do what you like, then LIKE what you are doing. Go as far as you can see, then see how far you can go!

 Taking Risks

            Nothing ventured is nothing gained. In cultivating a close relationship with a special woman, for example, take chances; you may be surprised. When you pursue this relationship, bring out the best in her. Love is such a wonderful feeling. Make the most of it, with patience and perseverance. Your mate may be hard to understand sometimes; but try to conquer her or him with love and companionship. That is precious.

 Spirituality    

            No matter what faith one follows, there is a need for the spiritual link with Creator, God, as well as relationship with the universe. Life is richer and deeper with this connection.

Give the Gift of Elder Wisdom this Year (It Never Wears Out!)

Looking for a more meaningful gift this year? What about practical advice from the wisest Americans?

One of my local heroes (yes, she lives near me) is the advice columnist Amy Dickinson (otherwise known as Ask Amy). She has come up with a great idea: That everyone on Christmas morning should get a special gift: A book placed on the end of their bed for when they wake up in the morning. Amy’s point is one of the best presents we can give still comes in the form of an old-fashioned book.

At the Legacy Project, we hope you might consider giving the special gift of elder wisdom this year. 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans offers the advice of over 1000 elders on topics like marriage, work, child-rearing, and growing older. Reviewers have praised it, like Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People), who wrote: “I can’t imagine anyone whose life will not be enriched by this book.” And it’s made it onto lists of top gift books.

And if you know someone who is searching for a partner or looking to make a long-term relationship work, the Legacy Project also has a book for that! A great gift is 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. They can learn from hundreds of people who have been happily married for 30, 40, 50 and more years.

Christmas and Chanukah are times when many of us see our older relatives and most of us think back to those with whom we celebrated the holiday in the past. The goal of these two books is to make sure their wisdom is not lost, and to pass it on to generations to come.

Love Life! The Key to Successful Aging

Harry is 81 years old and having a great time. He offers his advice for successful aging. He conveys the kind of exuberance and joy I discovered in many of the elders I interviewed.

Love life! Yes, just being alive to experience the joy, exultation, love of one’s wife/husband, the satisfaction of succeeding in a task set before you, the challenges you face and overcome, the social intercourse of friends and their imparting of knowlege you could never otherwise know. The wealth of memories

Seeing your child grow to a successful adult and then the blessings of sight, sound, taste, feel along with the feats the wondrous body can accomplish!

Those are the very essence of well-being when recognized as being the very basis of life. Not a guided tour but a never ending series of experiences, not all of which are welcome but in which one can take comfort in the one great truth that “this too shall pass away as shall all things.”

In my own life, now 81 years, some of my most creative years came after 70. The result is it opened a whole new world of admiring friends and business associates nationwide and I work at least two full days and 3 half days a week on the phone, fax and computer in the business and play golf the other half days for exercise and the joy of competing on the golf course with many more long-term close friends.

My choice is to live to the fullest until my time to depart when my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can grab the baton and carry it aloft for as long as their allotted time. To me, life is for living as long as I am physically able to get up and move.

The Problem of Ageism: How Does it Affect Both Old and Young?

The problem of ageism is coming out of the shadows and into the public eye. I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating panel hosted by The Atlantic, where we discussed the growing problem of age discrimination and what can be done about it. I was able to talk about my work with the World Health Organization, which is working to combat ageism around the world. Please share your thoughts on this important issue!

Adapting: The Key to Successful Aging

When we’re young, we tend to associate aging with loss. We often look ahead with concern or even dread at losing favorite activies. What you learn when you talk to a lot of older people, however, is how well many of them adapt to the inability to do favorite activities, substituting other enjoyable pastimes for them. I talked with Manny, age 73, about this, and he told me:

I mean, when somebody says, “Jeeze, you’re 73,” I think, “Yeah, well if I was dead, I wouldn’t be, you know?” So I’m quite happy. But I think that as you age, you are unable to do things that you could do, but you change your thinking such that you don’t have the same need to do whatever it is.

And I’ll give you an example. When I was young, I loved to play baseball, and I was pretty good at it. And there was a period of time, I couldn’t wait to spring, I couldn’t wait to get out and practice, to do any of that kind of stuff. But I got to college, I played one year, and I wasn’t good enough to play – there were several better ball players around,. So, I found something else to do, and then I played softball and did things.

But after about 35, I stopped doing it and I didn’t miss it. When I was 18 years old, I never dreamed I wouldn’t miss getting out and throwing a baseball or hitting one. But the body changes, the mind changes, and you adapt. At least, I did. And I think most people adapt if they allow themselves to. For most people, you know, you have to adapt to what happens to you to the best you can. And try to look at the upside of it, not the downside. I don’t have the need or the want to do the things that I at one point in my life I would have died for, if you know what I mean. I went on to other things.

What You Don’t Have Can Teach You a Lot About Happiness

How can you be happy without a lot of material things? Families are dealing with that problem today.

The experts on the issue are oldest Americans, the last surviving witnesses to the Great Depression. Bonita, 96, tells about a childhood most of us can hardly imagine. Living on very little, Bonita, her family, and her friends found it possible to be very happy.

Here’s her story:

People now think they need so much to be happy. We were happy in my family, and just think of what we didn’t have!

To give you an idea of what we lived without, here are a few practical things that I have had to learn over my life:

• To use electric lights rather than kerosene lamps.

• To use electric stoves and later a microwave oven instead of a wood stove.

• To use an electric washing machine instead off a scrub board, boiler on the stove, and three galvanized wash tubs.

• To use an electric clothes dryer instead of hanging the clothes on the line outside.

• To have a faucet in the kitchen rather than getting water by the pail-full from a spring in the meadow a fourth of a mile away.

• To have an indoor bathroom rather than taking a bath in the wash tub in front of a kitchen wood stove.

• To have toilet paper rather than an old Sears and Roebuck catalog.

• To use an indoor toilet rather than the privy behind the house.

• To live in a home with an electric iron rather than a sad iron heated on the stove.

• To listen to a TV rather than a Victrola.

• To answer the telephone when it rings rather than having to check out the special ring on a party line.

• To use frozen and prepared foods from the store rather than baking bread and eating garden and home canned foods.

• To buy ready-made clothes in a store instead of those made by a dressmaker who came to our house.

There are so many things people take for granted today, that we didn’t have. For example, life without a bathroom is hard to describe. One has to live it to know what it is like. Our bathing in those days was done in a basin of water that we carried to our bedrooms. In the winter, this meant trying to undress as near as possible to the stovepipe which added a bit of heat to the bedroom. During the winter, Mother tried to see to it that we each had a bath of some sort once a week. In the morning we washed a bit in the kitchen.

Our toilet was a small shed about six feet square. They were always built with three holes so daily trips to the privy often meant that it could be a social affair. My other memory of this building is of the swarms of flies in the summer. They buzzed and hummed around beneath you and kept you company whenever nature called you to this place.

The other big job before running water was doing the family washing for ten people. It started on Sunday night when a big copper wash boiler had to be filled with water from the spring up in the meadow. This would bring the water up to the room temperature during the night. Then Mother would heat the water to boiling on the wood stove. All the white clothes were boiled first and then washed. It was supposed to be more sanitary to boil the sheets and underwear. Then the hot clothes were removed with a “clothes stick”- a long bleached pole- and carried by the pail-full to the back wash room where we had three galvanized tubs on a large bench. In one tub, we rubbed the clothes on a wash board with Fels Naptha Soap. We rinsed the clothes in the second tub and then put them thru bluing water which seemed to counteract the yellowish color that the clothes often had.

The four older girls all took turns at the wash board in 15 minute shifts. The clothes were put through a hand wringer that had two rubber rollers and squeezed out some of the water. The clothes were then hung outside on a clothes line in the side yard or on the porch in the winter. I can see the long underwear during the winter as it froze stiff almost as soon as it was put on the line. Later in the day we had to bring the clothes back into the house and thaw them out and finished drying them on racks by the wood stove. The clothes really did smell sweet and clean after being out in the fresh air. Mother’s hands were always cold and sore as she went out on those cold winter days to hang out the clothes. Often she would heat the wooden clothes pins in the oven so that they would warm her hands for a few minutes.

Ironing was started on Tuesday and often took all week to do. Flat irons called “sad irons” were heated on the stove and then wiped on a cloth containing paraffin. I think this was to wipe off any smoke from the stove and to make the irons slide easier. We had both irons with handles fastened to the iron and detachable handles which we preferred. As the iron cooled off it had to go back on the stove and we’d try to find a hotter one to use. In those days we always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and usually had two tablecloths along with everyone’s personal clothes. It was a really big job.

This house was lighted with kerosene lamps. They were smoky and smelly. On Saturday we had to collect all of them and wash the chimneys, rinse them and dry them. The wicks had to be trimmed. The base of the lamp was filled with kerosene and then the lamps were each returned to the rooms where they belonged. The light that they produced was not very good.

The lamp was usually placed in the middle of our large dining room table and at night we all sat around it to do our homework. The older members of the family checked on the younger ones to see that pages of addition were completed and correct or that we had memorized our spelling words for the next day. We practiced our reading assignments by reading to some older member of the family from our reading books. Our teachers wanted each of us to memorize a short poem each week and we were expected to recite it in front of the class during a Friday afternoon assembly. “October’s Bright Blue Weather” and “Robert Reese” were two of my favorites.

With no television or record players, we had to make our own fun and entertainment. When we were through working on our school work for the next day, we often played games. We had checkers, dominoes, caroms, and card games like flinch, authors, concentration, and spit. Sometimes we played hide the thimble or spin the platter. We loved to play dress-up in the old clothes that were sent to us from relatives in California or the Lessells family in New York. We had names like Mrs. Colburn and Mrs. Osborn and would talk to each other at great length about our children, our husbands, and our lives while dressed in long black skirts, fancy lace blouses, and pretty old evening dresses form our relatives who were a bit better off than our family financially.

The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply

It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.

Past generations had it about right.  Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply.  One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.

Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.

Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.

Life Gets Better after 90: Cecile’s Lesson

In Cecile Lamkin’s living room, a wall of windows looks out through the still-bare trees to a calm lake below. This house has been Cecile’s home for over 50 years, only she recently gave up daily swims, she said, “Because I can’t get down the stairs anymore.” Widowed several years earlier after 68 years of marriage, Cecile, 93, explained that live after turning 90 has brought her a sense of wholeness, acceptance, and the ability to enjoy small pleasures.

I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person, not just as an adult, but as an older person, things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been thinking about why it is that I’m happier now. I came up with a lot of stuff. First of all, things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important. The second thing is, I don’t feel responsible in the same way that I used to feel. I’ve been a pretty responsible person, but I don’t feel that responsibility anymore. My children are in charge of their lives, and whatever they do with them, they will do with them.

And I live in a place, my house, that I love. In the summer here it is wonderful, and I live outdoors at that time. My family comes, friends come, and I use it like a vacation. I’ve also given up feeling that I have to entertain people. If there’s someone coming up, they will bring such and such. It’s very liberating for me. And I just feel a contentedness that I’ve never felt before. I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing.”

In the Legacy Project, so many people told us that they were happier than ever in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. So why do we all fear growing old so much? Please comment and share your thoughts on that question!