The Legacy Project Takes a Break

Dear Legacy Project Readers,

We’re taking a break in the month of July from new posts. If you are new here, there are hundreds of lessons for living from the oldest (and wisest) Americans. The Legacy Project has collected these life lessons from over 1500 people in their 70s, 80s, and beyond. Go to the About this Project page for suggestions on how best to enjoy the practical advice for living you will find here. More information can be found in the book on the Legacy Project: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

Stay tuned for news about the next step in the Legacy Project. We have collected information from hundreds of long-married elders about getting and staying married. In fact, we’re pouring over those responses this summer (and it’s one reason why we’re taking a break). We’ll be sharing lots of relationship advice from the wisest Americans when we return!

Happy Summer!

30 Lessons for Living: The Backstory

Over the past year since the publication of my book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, I have been gratified and touched by how much interest there is in harnessing the power of elder wisdom to improve our daily lives. People have asked for more details about the book and where the idea came from.

So I’m pleased to share an interview I conducted with the terrific ideas blog Farnam Street. It was a great opportunity to share some of the thinking that went behind the book, as well as my favorite lessons for living from the 1200 elders.

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INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me about yourself? This was a fascinating project, how did this project come about?

PILLEMER

As a gerontologist – someone who studies older people – I realized that I had focused much of my research over the past 25 years on problems of aging: nursing homes, Alzheimer’s disease, elder abuse. And that’s how our society also often looks at old people: as frail, needy, and about to bust our federal budget. But in my work, I kept meeting older people – many of whom had lost loved ones, been through tremendous difficulties, and had serious health problems – but who nevertheless were happy, fulfilled, and deeply enjoying life. I found myself asking: “What’s that all about?”

And I started seeing some fascinating research in the field of positive psychology. Study after study has shown that older people – in their 70s, 80s, and beyond – are actually happier than younger people.

One day it hit me: Maybe older people know things that younger people don’t about living a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. To my surprise I found that no one had actually done a study to answer the question: What practical advice do older people have for the younger generation? That set me off on a quest for knowledge – for the practical wisdom of older people – that lasted seven years.

So two of the main reasons for doing the project are these:

First, the fundamental hypothesis of this project and the book is that older people are the most credible experts we have on how to live happy and fulfilled lives during hard times. They have experienced extraordinarily historical events that tested their limits – and they have learned how to cope with them, to survive and to thrive. They have also been through the kinds of personal challenges and tragedies that younger people lie awake at night worrying about: loss of parents and spouses, even children; the ups and downs of marriage, child-rearing problems, bad jobs and unemployment. And they have come through them, and often are happier than younger people, as research shows us. What better source of advice for living for the rest of us?

Second, it was absolutely urgent to do a project like this now. Because this precious resource – the wisdom for living from this greatest generation – is about to disappear. In 10 years, most of this extraordinary generation – who lived through poverty in the Depression, who fought or held families together in WW II – will almost all be gone. And their advice for living would be lost forever.

That’s what I was able to capture in the Legacy Project: Not clichés or platitudes – like you see in some self-help books – but real, practical advice and tips for living better, on things like how to find a mate and stay happily married, how to raise kids, how to find a great job and succeed at it, how to avoid regrets, and how to age successfully. I wanted to take it and make it easy and fun to read for younger people – and older as well.

INTERVIEWER

You interviewed a diverse group of over 1,000 seniors. A group you call “the experts” because they’ve done something we haven’t, that is, they’ve lived a long life. What is the most important lesson they want to pass along to the young?

PILLEMER

At the core of their lessons for younger people is one major insight. And this lesson is a key to understanding their other lessons. It’s a beautiful example, because it shows something older people uniquely know – because of where they stand on life’s road – but that younger people can benefit from.

This lesson is one that almost everyone expressed. And they did it vehemently. It is kind of like one of those nightmares where you are yelling and no one can hear you. What they want younger people to know is this: life is short. The older the respondent, the more likely to say that life passes by in what seems like an instant.

They say this not to depress younger people, but to get them to be more aware and selective about how they use their time. Older people practice what psychologists call ‘socioemotional selectivity” – because their time is limited, they make careful decisions about how to use their time. The discovery of the Legacy Project is that younger people can learn from this and practice it earlier in life. As one man told me: “I wish I’d learned this in my 30s instead of in my 60s; I would have had so much more time to enjoy life.”

So they tell young people to stop wasting time and instead to use it more carefully. Some implications of this insight are to say things now to people you care about, whether it is expressing gratitude, asking forgiveness, or getting information; spending the maximum amount of time with children; and savoring daily pleasures instead of waiting for “big-ticket items” to make you happy.

Another piece of advice comes from this idea that life is much shorter than you realize: Take a chance. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond endorse taking risks when you’re young, contrary to a stereotype that elders are conservative. Their message to young people starting out is “Go for it!” They say that you are much more likely to regret what you didn’t do than what you did. As one 80-year old, successful entrepreneur told me: ‘Unless you have a compelling reason to say no, always say yes to opportunities.”

INTERVIEWER

One of the things I took away from the book is that a lot of the people you interviewed believed that happiness is a choice, that we can just choose to be happy. Some people are skeptical of the claim happiness is a choice. Can you elaborate on that?

PILLEMER

One of my first interviewees made me aware of this core piece of elder wisdom. I asked her to help me to understand the sources of her happiness. She thought for a moment and then offered the explanation that could serve as a motto for the elders: “In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition.”

Most of the elders said that taking charge of one’s own happiness simply must happen at some point if one is going to live a fulfilling life, and especially in old age. Not trying to assume control over everything that happens to us – they laughed at that idea – but over our own conscious attitude toward happiness.

Another elder told me: “My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life.”

The elders make the key distinction between events that happen to us on the one hand, and our internal attitude toward happiness on the other. Happy in spite of. Happiness is not a passive condition dependent on external events, nor is it the result of our personalities – just being born a happy person. Instead, happiness requires a conscious shift in outlook, in which one chooses – daily – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair.

Another of the elders described this idea as a revelation to her: “The biggest light bulb over my head came to me when I saw I could move away from painful situations by using my choices. I didn’t have to stay and take the pain. I could initiate change. This was a turning point in my life.”

You can choose to be happy, the Experts tell us, in spite of financial hardship, illness and loss. And it’s not an empty cliché, because so many are doing it right now.

INTERVIEWER

What do the experts say is most important for a long and happy marriage?

PILLEMER

Their number one lesson is: Choose your mate carefully! The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility with them. Said one respondent: “Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. That’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.” Also make sure you like his or her family.

INTERVIEWER

One of the tips was to work in a job you love. They were essentially saying life is short, choose a job for intrinsic not monetary rewards. Can you expand on that and maybe touch on any tips they had on making the best of a bad job?

PILLEMER

The elders are unanimous on that one point: Choose a career for its intrinsic value rather than how much money you will make. Our elders are keenly aware of how short life is, and they think it’s a mistake to waste precious lifetime in work you don’t like. They tell you to avoid statements like: ‘I’d really love to do ___, but I think I can make more money doing ___.’ According to our elders, you need to be able to get up on the morning excited about work, so choose your career with that in mind.

And it’s true that the older generation has this advice for work: Make the most of a bad job. Remember that many of these folks who grew up in the Great Depression had bad jobs early on – in fact, their bad jobs make our bad jobs look like good jobs! They found, however, that they learned invaluable lessons from these less-than-ideal work situations. You can learn how the industry works, about communicating with other employees, about customer service. As one man told me: ‘You can even learn from a bad boss – how not to be a bad boss!’ All this is useful in your future career.

I would add that when asked about what makes a job truly rewarding, the oldest Americans stress autonomy. They suggest that you look for a job that offers you as much self-direction as possible – and that taking a lower salary for a job that offers you greater freedom is worth it. An 82-year old successful entrepreneur told me: “The autonomy – most people never understand that. They’re slaves to somebody. The feeling that when you have this freedom –– there’s no money that can pay for it. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it, you have to feel it, and you know something? It doesn’t get better!’”

INTERVIEWER

What were their biggest regrets?

PILLEMER

When asked what they regret in life, many of the oldest Americans said: ‘I wish I’d traveled more.’ They recommend that people embrace travel, and especially when they are young. So if young people right now are wondering what to do with those graduation gifts, elder wisdom says to look into some travel (and low budget is fine) before you begin that first job.

Another of their biggest regrets made a real impression on me. I need to admit that I’m a world-class worrier. So for me a particularly striking lesson for avoiding regret – and a nearly unanimous one – was this: Stop worrying. The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end of life, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: “Worry wastes your life.” In the book, I give readers specific tips offered by the elders for breaking the worry habit – and they work!

INTERVIEWER

What’s changed in your life — what do you do differently now — after writing this book?

PILLEMER

I can genuinely say that the six years I spent talking to older people all over the country about their lessons for living changed my own life. I have tried to put into practice what they told me as much as I can. One thing just about every elder advises is this: “Live like your life is short.” That’s one thing they know from the vantage point at the end of the life course. They say this not to depress us, but to help us make better decisions, to savor daily life, and to say things to people that need to be said (while they are still around). I have developed more of a “carpe diem” mentality since doing this project, and I think people who read the book will too.

Probably the most extraordinary thing I learned was this: Old age is much better than we think it will be. For a lot of people who read the book, I think they will wind up being a lot less fearful about the last third of life, and much more optimistic. As one person told me: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.” Despite their problems, most of the people I interviewed feel that they are happier in some ways, freer, clearer in their priorities than they were when they were younger.

If anything comes out of this book, I hope it’s this: Making people aware of the source of wisdom that’s right in front of them: America’s elders. We’re going through economic upheavals and families are struggling: Who better to ask than people who survived the Great Depression? Families are struggling with our military involvements: Why not ask people who supported families through World War II? Struggling in your marriage? Why not ask people who have been happily married for 50 or 60 years? I’d love to see these kinds of conversations going on in every family – how about starting with family holidays like Thanksgiving?

Love those Book Clubs! Some Points for Discussion

One of the most fun things about publishing 30 Lessons for Living is occasionally attending meetings of book clubs that have read it. The book club movement is, in my opinion, among the hopeful signs in our culture. They show that people still care deeply about the written word, and clubs provide a supportive and friendly atmosphere that you find all too rarely these days.

I saw this first-hand in my recent visit to a book club at the invitation of Cindy Nicholson. This club is creatively named “Book Club,” and the members are pictured with me, above. In addition to discussing 30 Lessons for Living, I asked the club for their ideas on my next book, which is about elder wisdom for love, relationships, and marriage. they provided terrific ideas for what types of advice to ask about from long-married people. It was a lively and inspiring discussion!

All this got me to thinking about some questions that might help book clubs get the conversation rolling. Here are a few of my ideas. And book club members: If you have any more ideas, please comment!

1. Which of the 30 lessons resonated the most with you? Which lesson seemed to you the least important or relevant to your own experience? Why was this?

2. The elders I interviewed found the interviews interesting and enjoyable, but many of them also believed that younger people wouldn’t be interested in their advice for living. Do you think that there is an interest in elder wisdom? If not, is that a problem in our society?

3. One main point the elders make is that, from their perspective, life seems very short. Some psychologists say that this sense of a limited time horizon actually helps people make better decisions and to spend their time more wisely. Do you see benefits of this sense of life’s finitude? Or is it depressing?

4. The advice from the elders can sometimes seem out of step with today’s “conventional wisdom.” Which of their lessons offers the clearest alternative to “public opinion” on how to live your life?

5. Are there any of the lessons that you have used after reading the book in your own life? Or that you plan to use? What are these, and why?

6. Have you personally benefitted from elder wisdom in your own life (for example, advice from older relatives or friends)? How did it help you?

7. What do you think about the way older people are treated in contemporary society? What does the book imply for how our society could value older people?

8. The book is confined to older Americans. Do any group members have experiences with older people from different cultures? How might the findings in 30 Lessons for Living be different if the surveys were conducted in other nations?

These are just a start – Good luck with your discussions!

Best Books of 2012 – 30 Lessons for Living Is on the Lists!

The excitement about 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans keeps spreading. At the Legacy Project, we hope this means people are waking up to the value of elder wisdom and how it can change our lives for the better.

One great sign: It’s an honor to report that 30 Lessons has been receiving “best book” recognition over the past few weeks:

Bloomberg News, Best Books of 2012: In the words of the reviewer:  “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice From the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer reminds us of what’s important in life. Superbly written.”

Rhode Island Bookstores, Best Gift Books of 2012.

Next Avenue’s Best Books to Boost Your Career. As the reviewer puts it: ” After reading [the book], I bet you’ll rethink your career and how you’ll want to work in the future.”

30 Lessons for Living: Readers React

It’s a great pleasure to hear readers’ reactions to 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Our goal in the Legacy Project and the book was to encourage people to take elder wisdom seriously, and to return to the time-honored tradition of asking older people for their advice for living. It’s great that so many people have found this perspective to be useful.

We’ve been hearing a lot from book clubs who are reading 30 Lessons for Living. Just in from a New York book club member: “Last night we discussed your book at our book club — it generated one of our best discussions ever.  It was a great read for us!” The book seems to act as a springboard for profound book club discussions of how to make the most of your life.

We keep hearing from readers from around the country, like these:

From a reader in California:

For a number of years it has been on my back burner to travel the country with the intention to interview the elderly, believing that there is so much soulful information that exists with this cohort and how sad it is that we let it just slip away without notice or interest (or having it inform the actions and beliefs of the younger crowd). I was both delighted and a bit bummed out to discover your book (mostly delighted). It’s a wonderful book! Thank you for writing it with such integrity and genuine intent.

A fan from Taiwan (!):

 Thanks for your excellent book “30 Lessons for Living” which would help people around the world to rethink happiness and success and to find their own happy and successful life. I hope your efforts for the world will continue and bear fruit.

 And from a father-to-be in Memphis:

A work colleague and friend recently handed me a copy of your book “30 lessons for living” – a wonderful and easy read that reinforces many of the lessons my parents and elders have taught me (or tried to teach me!) over the years! As a soon-to-be first-time dad, I hope to pass on these lessons to our child. Thank you for all your hard work and research in putting the book together!  For some national reactions to the book, here is  a selection of media coverage:

The media also continue to spread the word about the elder wisdom that we have captured in the Legacy Project and the book.

The Washington Post just created a wonderful slideshow illustrating the lessons, called Twelve Ways to Live a Better Life.

I had a great interview this month with Dr. Michael Roizen (of the “You: The Owner’s Manual” books with Dr. Oz). You can listen here.

This article came out this week in the Wall Street Journal, urging people to follow the book’s lead and ask elders in their lives for lessons.

And many people are still enjoying these two reports from some months ago:

The PBS Newshour devoted a segment to the book, with interviews with two wonderfully wise elders.

Jane Brody published a terrific column on the book in the New York Times.

But the best  recognition that elder wisdom is critically important is this: Your support for this blog! Around 10,00 readers visit every month, and lots of you are viewing many lessons while you are here. Thanks to all of you for your interest, and for spreading the word about the Legacy Project!

We Welcome Our Summer Interns – and Guest Bloggers!

This summer, the Legacy Project has been thrilled to partner with the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City on a college internship project.

Jackie Santo is majoring in Marketing at Tulane University, Class of 2015. Ariana Wolk is currently planning to major in Communication at Cornell University, Class of 2015. This well-qualified pair of young people were the first participants in The Risk and Resiliency Project. 

This fascinating new internship program focuses both on the problems and the positive side of aging. The interns looked at the issue of  elder abuse and neglect, but balanced this topic with a focus on the strengths of elder adults. The program is directed by Risa Breckman, who also directs the NYC Elder Abuse Center.

Ariana and Jackie contributed to The Legacy Project by interviewing older adults (using The Legacy Project’s interview protocol) about the lessons they want to pass on to younger generations. The internship also provides them each with a small grant to bring some aspect of what they have learned this summer about both elder wisdom and elder abuse to their college communities. 

Our next two posts will come from Ariana and Jackie, based on their interviews with wise elders. Stay tuned!

30 Lessons for Living – The Legacy Project Book

I’m very grateful to the thousands of people who have read 30 Lessons for Living and spread the word to colleagues and friends. The attention to the book shows how much people care about capturing the wisdom of the oldest Americans before they leave us. 

For some reactions to the book, here is  a selection of recent media coverage:

The Washington Post recently did a feature article on 30 Lessons for Living.

I had a great conversation with Moe Abdou on his “33 Voices” show. You can listen here.

“The Week” magazine featured lessons from eight of the elders, and it gives a great sense of the flavor of the book: “8 Lessons for Living a Full Life.”

Here’s a recent TV interview on “Good Morning Alabama.”

The PBS Newshour devoted a segment to the book, with interviews with two wonderfully wise elders.

Jane Brody published a terrific column on the book in the New York Times.

The Chicago Tribune’s article conveys key themes in the book.

I am also grateful to Chelsea Clinton for her endorsement of the Legacy Project and the book.

And a recent  review  sums up what the reaction has been so far to the book:

“I highly recommend it for anyone who craves words of wisdom and comfort. If age is just a number, “30 Lessons for Living” is number one.”
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But the most exciting  recognition that elder wisdom is critically important is this: Your support for this blog! We are now getting over 1000 visits every day, and most of you are viewing many lessons while you are here. Thanks to all of you for your interest, and for spreading the word about the Legacy Project!

“Ask Amy” Readers Discuss “30 Lessons” and Marriage

I love reading the daily lessons from the wonderful nationally-syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson – “Ask Amy.” Amy printed a Valentine’s day column on the lessons for marriage in my book 30 Lessons for Living, that offered five tips from America’s elders for happy married life.

But it didn’t end there. Readers of this column (that appears in more than 400 newspapers) began to add their own lessons for marriage. In today’s column, there’s a wonderful list that I’d like to share with you – right in line with the elders in my book.

Dear Amy: I just had to offer a comment regarding your column that appeared on Valentine’s Day — the letter from Karl Pillemer of Cornell University regarding the secrets to a long, happy marriage.

I feel qualified to weigh in on this topic; my husband and I marked our 50th anniversary a few months ago. We actually met at age 14, in ninth-grade homeroom, and have been together ever since.

We feel truly fortunate to have found each other at such a tender age and to have had such a good run.

It was as if Mr. Pillemer had held a mirror up to our life.

We have talked many times about the importance of having the same core values, being friends first and lovers second, and never holding grudges.

Item No. 4 — talk to each other — has been a critical and valued part of our long relationship.

If we were to make any additions to the list, it would be the importance of a sense of humor.

Being able to laugh is essential — first at ourselves, and then at the absurdities of our everyday world.

We also try to always be aware of the needs of others and to be generous with our resources and our time.

Granted, life is not always perfect. But we know we are blessed.

The strength of our relationship has seen us through those “inevitable rough patches.”

We are grateful for each day together and do our best to spend them wisely.

Keep an eye on the “Ask Amy” column – more lessons may be coming!

Elder Wisdom: Where’s the Sex?

A few days ago, I received a very interesting inquiry from Jo Giese. You may have heard of Jo, who is a noted author and journalist. Her remarkable and moving caregiving story on This American Life made an impression on many people.

Jo raised a point that I must admit stopped me in my tracks – one of those head-smacking moments where you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that?”  She wrote:

I saw you interviewed on TV and got your book.  I’m enjoying it and look forward to giving it to my 96-year-old mother, who could very easily have been one of your experts.

However, I was disappointed in one huge omission:  the discussion of sexuality and aging.  If folks are nervous about aging and death, they are also often nervous about the potential loss of sexuality as they age.  However, studies show that as long as people have a partner they can continue to have a satisfactory, if different from when they were younger, sexual life.

Jo is of course absolutely right. Research evidence summarized by the American Psychological Association demonstrates that sex by no means “stops at 60,” and that many elders remain sexually interested and engaged throughout their lives. As the National Institute on Aging puts it: “Many people want and need to be close to others as they grow older. This includes the desire to continue an active, satisfying sex life as they grow older.”

So: Why doesn’t the issue show up in the Legacy Project interviews, and in my book, 30 Lessons for Living, based on the 1200 elders in the project? I’ve been pondering that question since receiving Jo’s message, and maybe you readers can help me.

In doing the interviews and writing the book, I was committed to letting the elders drive the process. In our initial pilot studies, we asked people in an open-ended way for their lessons. Then we took those themes, and used them to guide the surveys we conducted.

And sex – as part of a lesson for living or advice for the young – just didn’t come up. It didn’t make the top 30 list of lessons to pass on to future generations. In fact, it didn’t make any list at all. When it came up, it was often downgraded in importance. For example, when Stanley, 84, was considering a second marriage, he told me that he wanted someone who was “touchy – someone who isn’t afraid to be touched and to touch back. I’m not talking about sex; I’m talking about affection.”

When I asked: “What advice would you give for finding a mate and staying married” only a handful of people mentioned sexual compatibility or a good sex life, and typically it was at the end of the list that included sharing similar values, liking one another’s family, communicating, and not “keeping score” in the relationship.

So why no sex? The topic is striking in its absence.

One hypothesis might be that the topic was too sensitive, but I don’t think so. The elders were certainly honest about everything else! They talked about severe marital problems, betrayal, and divorce. The also opened up about their financial situations, about child-rearing problems, and about death (considered to be another highly taboo topic). I would add that one of our interviewers was a woman in her late sixties, with whom older women would presumably feel comfortable – and they didn’t mention sexuality in their life lessons to her, either.

A second possibility is that sexuality in this generation is more “taken for granted” and treated less as a problem to be solved than it is in contemporary culture.

Or third, people may simply have felt that this was not a topic on which they had concrete advice to share. It may not have seemed to be an issue on which they could advise the young. Or at their stage of life, the benefits of companionship and friendship in marriage are more salient, and so they highlighted these themes.

Readers: I need your help. Any thoughts on why, among so many topics, the hundreds of elders we interviewed did not include sexuality in their advice for future generations? Please weigh in! Take a look at the comments below – do you agree?