Archives for How To Be Happy

We All Want to Stay Positive: But How Should We Do It?

What makes us happy? There’s so much interest in this topic that a veritable mountain of positive-attidtuebooks has been published over the past few years on the “how to be happy” theme. Despite all the advice, people often struggle to maintain a positive attitude in the face of the challenges, losses, and stress life throws at us.

In our surveys of older people (mostly age 70 and beyond), we asked them to share their thoughts on the question: “As you look back over your life, what are the most important lessons you have learned that you would like to pass on to younger people?” And as described in my recent book, many of the elders offered this piece of advice: Strive intentionally to maintain a positive attitude every day.

Sifting through hundreds of pages of responses, one quote leaped out that summed up the view of the elders:

“In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice, not a condition.”

Most of our respondents reported the same lesson. But is this just an empty cliche? Given these source of this advice, it’s much more than that.

Keep in mind that everyone who reaches old age has lived through loss, illness, and disappointment. Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion of America’s elders is that people need to make a daily, conscious decision to maintain a positive attitude. Based on their life experience, they exhort us to take charge and to assume control – not over what happens to us, which is often impossible – but over our own attitude toward happiness.

So they don’t just offer this as a general platitude. The elders had some specific tips they wanted to share. Here are some of them.

Eliminate unnecessary worrying. Over and over as they reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I wish I’d spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a “do-over” in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent poisoning the present moment with fruitless rumination about the future. As John, 83, put it: “Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.” Doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Focus on the short term rather than the long term. To stay positive, the elders suggest you focus on the short term; many endorsed the idea of dealing with immediate problems rather than spinning endless “what-ifs” in your head. When a centenarian gives advice, I tend to listen, and here’s what Eleanor, 102, told me: “Well I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, “This too will pass.” So the most important thing is one day at a time. You can plan ahead but it doesn’t always work out.”

Acceptance. The elders told me that acceptance isn’t purely passive; rather, it’s something we can actively foster. They recommend actively working toward acceptance of problems and limitations as a key to a positive attitude. Sister Clare, 98, is a very wise nun. She shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance – saying to herself “let it be.” She told me: “So many things come to your mind, for instance somebody might hurt your feelings, you’re going to get back at him or her, well – just let it be. Push it away. Some people get on your nerves and they will be there until you die. Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think ‘If I did that, then what?’ And let it be.”

Savoring. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude depends on thinking small: the morning cup of coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio (all pleasures mentioned in my interviews). Ursula suffered immense hardship as a child in Hitler’s Germany. Her advice: “I think the most important thing I learned was not to take things for granted. You cannot be entirely prepared for what will happen to you in life, but I learned that despite everything that happened, life is worth living and you can enjoy every day especially because of the little things in life. You can have joy, even if the big things go wrong.”

Finally, many of the elders believe that young people can benefit from this advice. Some respondents told me that they wish they had learned to make a positive attitude a conscious choice, to practice acceptance, and to savor the small stuff earlier in life. As Malcolm, 70, told me: “It seems to take a lifetime to learn how to live in the moment, but it shouldn’t. I wish I could have learned this in my 30s rather than in my sixties. It would have given me decades more to enjoy life in this world.”

Different New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans

Are you tired of New Year’s resolutions lists by now? I am pretty much satiated with blogs and media telling me how to lose weight, start exercising, get rich, etc., in 2014. And I recall reading that only a tiny fraction of New Year’s resolutions are ever acted upon. Is there a better source of wisdom for the new year? I think there is.

I reviewed the data we gathered from more than 1,200 elders in the Legacy Project, who shared their lessons for living for future generations. Based on the surveys and interviews, here are  resolutions in five areas of life that are worth a try. These suggestions from the oldest Americans may serve you better than the typical ones we make (and break) each year.

Work. “Ask yourself: Are you glad to get up in the morning?” When it comes to your job, the elders propose a diagnostic test: How do you feel when you get up on a workday morning? You may be ambivalent about your job and have your ups and downs. But when it comes down to it, how do you feel when you are having that first cup of coffee?

Are you at least in a tolerable mood, looking forward to something about work? If instead you feel dread and foot-dragging, the elders say it may be time for a change. As Albert, 80, put it: “It’s a long day if you don’t like what you’re doing. You better get another job because there’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.”

Marriage. “Let your partner have his or her say.” From marriages lasting 40, 50, 60 or more years, the elders find that deliberately showing your partner that you are listening is a major way to defuse conflict. Natalie, 89, told me: “I learned that when you’re communicating, to really listen to what the other person is saying. When I got married, instead of listening to my husband, I would be thinking what to say in reply, to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.”

April, 70, offered a specific technique: “If we were in some sort of struggle over something we would stop and say: ‘Which one of us is this more important to?’ And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go.”

Child-rearing. “Abandon perfection.” The elders we surveyed raised over 3,000 children, and from that experience they had a clear lesson: Resist the temptation to seek perfection, both in your kids and in your parenting. We logically recognize the futility of creating perfect children, but emotionally we often hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. The elders, in contrast, are the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit that each of their kids experienced difficulty, a period of unhappiness, a wrong turn. They suggest we lighten up regarding our children and assume that failure is inevitable at times. Gertrude, 76, said: “We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way.”

Aging. “Accept it.” Unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter over the past decade, you’ve seen the barrage of advertising for “anti-aging medicine.” There’s a whole subculture of practitioners promising to defeat the aging process. To this the elders say: Forget about it! Instead, they encourage you to accept the aging process and to adapt activities to your changing physical abilities and circumstances. The very active Clayton, 81, noted: “You kind of grow into it. You realize that if you can’t be running this fast, well, you just go slower, but you keep on running. Do what you’re able to do and accept that there might be some limitations.” And don’t waste a penny on “anti-aging” products.

Regrets. “Go easy on yourself.” I recently was asked to do a post for CNN on the topic of how to avoid having regrets later in life. The elders do in fact have some good suggestions on that topic. But there’s another point they make: The goal of living a regret-free life is unrealistic. Their recommendation: Go easy on yourself regarding the mistakes and bad choices you have made. Alice, 85, pointed out: “What I have learned from the mistakes that I’ve made is that you can’t change what’s happened in the past. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. Once a decision is made, you don’t get anywhere by looking back and second-guessing it. As somebody taught me years ago: “if you’ve bought a pair of shoes, don’t look at the shoes in the next store window!”

And a last resolution: don’t forget to seek advice from elders you know. They have practical tips for living a more fulfilling life. Happy New Year!

Accumulating Stuff is of Little Importance

First, let me say that I love the holiday season. But, as Christmas approaches and we are inundated with advertisements and messages to spend wildly, it’s worth taking a break for elder wisdom. In the Legacy Project, over and over the elders told us that people and experiences matter more than things. In hundreds of interviews, they unanimously caution that time spent getting a lot more stuff than you really need is time wasted. The holidays seem like the right time to listen to our elders and think twice about how much we buy.

Steve, 78, tells how he learned to put material rewards in perspective, focusing instead on the accumulation of love for family and friends. As I’m planning my Christmas shopping, I try to keep his lesson in my head!

We were among the very lucky ones. Both my wife and I were born into middle class merchant families, with caring parents in small communities where you knew and were known by your neighbors. My wife lost her father when she was only 13. She, her mother and sister moved to another, beautiful small community where life was comfortable though not luxurous and values for the young were set by the example of parent and community. My childhood with loving parents and an older brother was uncomplicated and also filled with good values set by example. Owning and accumulating was not an important part of life for either of our families.

This upbringing undoubtedly established most of our values and attitudes for the adult years. Honesty, integrity and compassion for ones fellow human beings remained the anchor for all decisions. As we matured, reared and educated four children and attempted to pass along those values to them, we learned that listening is far more important than lectures, and though it sometimes seemed we were not heard, the example of our lives spoke loudly to our youngsters.

Now, at 71 and 78, as we progress through our senior years, living comfortably — not luxurously — we are increasingly aware that accumulating STUFF is of little importance. The accumulation of love for each other, of our children and of life-long friends and extending that love to those less fortunate than we have been is the centerpiece of our lives, of humanity and civilization.

Giving Thanks: The Core of Elder Wisdom

In our surveys of  over 1200 of the oldest Americans in the Legacy Project. one thing stands out. Although many of these elders have serious burdens of chronic disease, family problems, or economic difficulties, getting older has bestowed a special gift – gratefulness.

They  told us they are especially thankful for small, pleasant things: a favorite song on the radio, the antics of a beloved dog, a brightly colored bird on the lawn in spring, the morning cup of coffee, being in a warm bed on a snowy night.

If you need help developing a spirit of gratefulness this Thanksgiving, let me share with you what the elders told us. First, here are three quick thoughts to keep in mind this season:

Be grateful for every day you have. I’m serious about that. Just be grateful of every day you have and enjoy. (Purnima, 81)

It’s an everyday thing, because I like to be thankful, I like to be thankful for what I have and my good health. And the blessings that the Lord gives us from day to day we should be thankful for. And another thing is to try to live your life daily, one day at a time. Look ahead but still make the most of each day. (Tanya, 79)

Take time to replenish yourself – sleep, quiet time, music, reading, enjoying nature. It’s difficult to keep going when you are running on empty. Be grateful in your everyday life for the small stuff. (Rudy, 84)

And in the wonderful spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to share with you the thoughts of one of the wisest elders in the Legacy Project. Pass it on to your loved ones on this special day!

Jane, 90, did not always have an easy path along life’s journey. But as she looks back on her sometimes challenging experiences, she
learned one critically important lesson for living: How to be grateful for all that life offers.

My parent’s’ divorce when I was thirteen was ugly and acrimonious, and my mother, sister, and I suffered severe financial hardship.

 My school life was important to me and I was disappointed that I was unable to go on to college. World War II affected and changed everyone’s life. We truly thought it was to be the war to end all wars. What a bitter lesson that was. I was emotionally and financially unequipped for the grief and difficulties that followed my husband’s death in 1952. When I look back now, I wonder how we survived.

But my later years have been much easier because I learned to be grateful for what I have, and no longer bemoan what I don’t have or can’t do. Saying “thank you” reminds me of my blessings, which are many. When I look back over my life, the most important things I have learned are these.

My small and modest home gives me a feeling of comfort and security.

Being self-reliant and able to care for myself has been part of my mother’s heritage to me. She didn’t give up when life was difficult and I try not to either. Grief, sorrow, and disappointment are difficult to endure, but in time I realized that there usually was a lesson to be learned and memory has allowed me to remember a person loved who is now gone.

Mother taught me not to cry over “spilt milk”:; Iif you make a mess, clean it up.; Iif you break it, fix it.; Aand if you make a mistake, correct it. She also taught me to keep my word, to be dependable, not to rob others of their time by being late, and to promptly return what I borrow. The world would be a better place if we all learned to value each other, to respect each other’s privacy and differences, and, most importantly, not be judgmental.

We are each responsible for our own well-being, and we need to care for ourselves, not only physical health but also mental and emotional well- being. Worrying never solved a problem and only robs you of your peace of mind.

Life isn’t fair. I believe it is important to have arms outstretched, one hand up—, holding one hand up to the person who is giving a you a lift up— and one hand down, giving some else a helping hand up.

This too will pass, whether it is joy or sorrow. So live each moment of every day. Some days will be passed by putting one foot in front of the other to get through, but others will be filled with joy, every moment worth celebrating.

I have had to live simply but eventually I realized that it is the best way for me to live. That to know what is enough, not to use more than my share of the earth’s resources, to recognize the difference between wants and needs, to enjoy the pleasure of making something broken of use again, and learning to appreciate simple pleasures has made my life more satisfying and less worrisome.

Happiness does not depend on how much we have but is based on personal success of skills and artistry, a sense of humor, the acquisition of knowledge, the refinement of character, the expression of gratitude, the satisfaction of helping others, the pleasure of friends, the comfort of family, and the joy of love.

We hope you enjoyed her list of things for which she is grateful, and we encourage you to make a list of your own!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Need Motivation?: Four Elders on Living Life to the Fullest

Sometimes the elders spoke with nearly one voice. So it was with their advice to take advantage of every day given to you. They didn’t feel the need to elaborate too much on this point; their message is more along the lines of “just do it!”

If you need motivation, post these four comments from four of the wisest Americans on your refrigerator:

Live each day to the fullest. Life is an adventure worth living. Smile! (Juanita, 87)

Well, my mother used to say live every day as if you had forever to live and yet also it was your last day. So make every day count. (Mei-Zhen, 76)

One of the things that comes to my mind is to do whatever it is that presents itself to you, rather than to let that opportunity pass and then regret a lack of involvement in it. Don’t miss an opportunity! (Eddie, 68)

I’ll put it this way. Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash in hand, spend it wisely. (Morris, 91)

A List for Living: Our Gift to the Graduates

What would the wisest Americans like to tell today’s college and high school graduates? From our surveys of over 1200 older people (most in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond) here are a few gems for those heading out to college or to the “real world.” Like the elders themselves, their advice is by turns serious and funny. Pass these on to the graduates in your lives.

Remember that life is short.  When you’re tired sleep. When you’re hungry eat.  Better yet — eat, drink and be merry.  And do good things for others along the way.  It makes everybody feel better.

Save your money, take care of yourself, play golf.

God don’t like people that mess around where they ain’t supposed to be. I know he put it out there for you to do if you want to do it, but he don’t tell you to do it.

I think stick with your beliefs but listen to other people’s sides. A couple of times I think I even voted for Democrats.

Stay out of trouble, steer clear of other people’s wives.

When there’s a “problem,” it’s more helpful to assume it’s yours than someone else’s. Yours you can fix. Someone else’s you can’t.

It’s important to have heroes, to have a “throw back your head laughing” sense of humor, to keep your word so that you can be utterly relied upon, to speak and write thoughtfully and well, and to have good manners.

Learn new things, don’t sit back and stagnate. I’ve got to admit that we just got a new computer and it still terrifies me. I couldn’t even program anything and I’m a damn mechanic! And here comes an eight year old boy who can work it so well.

We’re better off to love, I guess, than we are to hate.

I guess the advice I would give to younger generations is this: Examine your life; truly examine it; find out who you  really are. Don’t fear to follow where your life takes you. The result can be an incredible symphony. The journey may be difficult, the path steep, but in the end it will be worth it. You can live a fulfilling, peaceful, and happy life. The answer is within.

Elder Wisdom from Tennessee! Great Advice for Living

One of the joys of working on the Legacy Project is learning about similar ideas from around the country. This week, I received an email from Tina Jones, who runs the Spring Street Outreach Program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Tennessee  (pictured at right). Assisted by volunteers, Tina brings a group of around 40 low-income elders to the church each month for a hot meal and activities. All of these elders are African-Americans who lived through segregation, integration of the schools and many other significant events in our country’s history.

Tina had the great idea to have the participants offer their “Words of Wisdom” for young people. They created a lovely compilation of lessons from these wise ones, which you can read here. And the project was intergenerational: A group of students at Battle Ground Academy (a middle school in Franklin) helped summarize and present the elders’ advice. 

Here’s a sampling of the advice from several participants:

From Sheila:

People who hide nothing have nothing to hide!

To hate or be angry with someone is like you drinking poison and

wishing that the other person dies.

If you settle for what you got, then you deserve what you have!

Unsolicited advice is nothing more than criticism.

From Thelma:

Get the best education you can; everyone needs to be able to read and write well.

Leave all the bad habits alone (drugs, alcohol, crime, etc.). because they will hurt you later.

Get a job and go to work. It may not be the job you really want; but, if you work hard and people see you are a good worker, you will move ahead and things will get better.

Go to vote in every election. Get into politics to make a better world.

If there is a “black sheep” in the family, remember that his wool is just as important as the others.

From Henry:

Love one another

Learn how to pray

Stay and finish school

Follow your dreams

In the Legacy Project and the book 30 Lessons for Living, we strongly urge everyone to ask the elders in their lives for their lessons for living – before they are gone. Hats off to Tina and the St. John’s Episcopal Church outreach program for this terrific project idea. Why not try sponsoring something like it through your faith community?

Advice to Graduates – From a Pretty Cool 91-Year Old

Here in my college town, the campus is bustling with end-of-semester activities and preparations for graduation. Who better to give advice to graduates than the oldest and wisest Americans?

Verna, 91, wrote this ”list for living” for young people starting out in life. It’s a good one to pass on to the graduates this month!

1. So many things in the world have changed since the time of my grandparents and parents and the earlier times of my own life, and I know that there will be lots of changes in your lifetime too.

2. I hope you will always take education seriously (I was a teacher) and become well-educated to be ready for whatever kind of work or service you will be doing.

3. I hope that you will respect your body- take good care of it and try to have good health.

4. I hope that the governments of the world will do a better job of getting along with each other so that you can experience peace among nations.

5. I hope you will be a positive thinker, not negative or cynical.

6. Look for the good in people and things, and fill your life with love, kindness, and thoughtfulness for others.

7. I would hope that you will know the peace and joy and courage that come from following a life of love and service- the peace that passes all understanding.

8. Your real success in life lies is the kind of person you become, not with how famous or wealthy you are, so my most sincere wish is for you to live the wholesome life that will lead you to make good choices along the way, to Reach That Star that you are striving to reach.

YOU CAN DO IT!

Worry Wastes Your Life

What do older people regret when they look back over their lives? I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question. I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions — that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave:

I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.

Over and over, as the 1,200 elders in our Legacy Project reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a single “do-over” in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting anxiously about the future.

Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it’s not just what they said — it’s how they said it.

John Alonzo, 83, is a man of few words, but I quickly learned that what he had to say went straight to the point. A construction worker, he had battled a lifetime of financial insecurity. But he didn’t think twice in giving this advice:

Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.

That was it. His one life lesson was simply to stop worrying.

James Huang, 87, put it this way:

Why? I ask myself. What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realized that it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.

This surprised me. Indeed, I thought that older people would endorse a certain level of worry. It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries; who fought or lost relatives in World War II would suggest we worry about international issues; and who currently deal with increasing health problems would want us to worry about our health.

The reverse is the case, however. The elders see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Why is excessive worry such a big regret? Because, according to the elders, worry wastes your very limited and precious lifetime. By poisoning the present moment, they told me, you lose days, months, or years that you can never recover.

Betty, 76, expressed this point with a succinct example:

I was working, and we learned that there were going to be layoffs in my company in three months. I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well — I wish I had those three months back.

 Life is simply too short, the oldest Americans tell us, to spend it torturing yourself over outcomes that may never come to pass.

How should we use this lesson, so that we don’t wind up at the end of our lives longing to get back the time we wasted worrying? The elders fortunately provide us with some concrete ways of thinking differently about worry and moving beyond it as we go through our daily lives.

Tip 1: Focus on the short term rather than the long term.

Eleanor is a delightful, positive 102-year-old who has had much to worry about in her long life. Her advice is to avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and to focus instead on the day at hand. She told me:

Well, I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, “This too will pass.” You just can’t go on worrying all the time because it destroys you and life, really. But there’s all the times when you think of worrying and you can’t help it — then just make yourself stop and think: it doesn’t do you any good. You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. You just have to take one day at a time. It’s a good idea to plan ahead if possible, but you can’t always do that because things don’t always happen the way you were hoping they would happen. So the most important thing is one day at a time.

Tip 2: Instead of worrying, prepare.

The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning, which greatly reduces worry. It’s the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them.

Joshua Bateman, 74, summed up the consensus view:

If you’re going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is. At least understand why. Identify it. ‘I’m afraid of X.’ And sometimes you might have good reason. That’s a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.

Tip 3: Acceptance is an antidote to worry

The elders have been through the entire process many times: worrying about an event, having the event occur and experiencing the aftermath. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and being prepared as cures for worry, many of the elders also recommend actively working toward acceptance. Indeed this was most often the message of the oldest experts.

Sister Clare, a 99-year-old nun, shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, and at a certain time of his life, something happened, and it broke his heart. And he was very angry — he just couldn’t be resigned, he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this priest told us, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

 Sister Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind. Now, for instance, somebody might hurt your feelings. You’re going to get back at him or her — well, just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that. I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well, now, she shouldn’t do that. I should tell her that . . .” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that following this piece of elder wisdom may seem impossible to some of you. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. The key characteristic of worry, according to scientists who study it, is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about. This kind of worry — ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones — is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.

A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to our elders, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas down the road the other is deeply regretted as a waste of our all-too-short time on Earth.

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.