From the time I can remember, I tried to please first, my parents, then my friends, followed by my husband and children. It was hard work, and many times I did not do as well as I would have liked. I spent a lot of energy trying to live up to others’ and my own expectations. As I age, I have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or expects: the only one I have to answer to is myself. If I feel good about something, then it is good for me. If I try to please someone, it is because it pleases me to do so. I no longer stub my toe on details that shouldn’t matter and have much more energy to spend on those things that make me happy. I have ordered my priorities with the realization that my days are numbered, even if I don’t know how many there are. I watch the moon rise and the sun set, smell the roses and love deeply the many people who enhance my life.
In our interviews with hundreds of America’s elders in the Legacy Project, I learned that older people know some things on a deep level that the younger generation doesn’t. Perhaps the most important of these insights is a simple one: Life is short. The elders, from their vantage point, know how quickly life passes, and they urge us to savor it along the way. Rather than focusing only on our long-term plans and ambitions, the elders tell us to learn while we’re young how to live in the moment.
This point was brought home to me in an interview with John, 70, who lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to savor life’s daily pleasures. 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.
I suggest, based on John’s insights, that we all take at least a little time each day to stop and enjoy the present moment. Many of the Legacy Project elders point to peaceful savoring a major key to happiness.
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 2018. 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!
In my surveys of over 1500 of the oldest Americans for the book 30 Lessons for Living, 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!
Charles, 83, told me about growing older and how to do it gracefully..His advice is that we must learn to adapt. To make that point, he offered a profound metaphor for how we should approach aging: learning to swim.
I think when one is 20, one probably doesn’t realize how important the ability to adapt is to your happiness. So that people who cannot grow and change are sort of stuck with their own personalities. We need insight, which is something that has to be either consciously or unconsciously sought after. One sees people who don’t seem to have the insights they need to be happy.
You asked me what I’ve learned growing older. I’d put it this way. I’ve learned how to swim. Not in water; I’ve learned how to swim in life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.
Sometimes, the advice of the Legacy Project Elders is short – and sweet. Here’s an example.
Acording to the elders, much of what is most enjoyable about their lives are the little things, the day-to-day features of creating a contented life. Ivan, 84, summed it up an a short but memorable way.
It sounds corny and trite, but I would tell people this lesson: Take time to turn off your cell phone, your tablet, your electronics. Get outside. Enjoy a walk in the forest. Savor the fragrances of nature after a summer storm. Watch a sunrise or sunset with someone you love. Listen to the birds sing. Lie down in a field of flowers and watch the clouds.
A happy life is a lot of contentment but with surges of joy and a minimum of sorrow. You can find contentment a lot easier than you can find continuous joy.
Is there anything more amazing than at long talk with a 102-year old? There is a time-machine feeling as you listen to a century of memories. So it was talking with Wanda, age 102. Living comfortably in a senior community in upstate New York, Wanda is physically active and mentally sharp – indeed, we spent some time discussing books she was reading. Her lessons are grounded both in a childhood remarkably different from today, as well as her over a century of life experience.
She reflected on her childhood:
Well, the changes since I was a child! We had a horse and buggy. We had a telephone on the wall. Things were a lot different than they are today. I mean, we didn’t have any frozen vegetables. We didn’t have anything like that. We lived on a farm, we had chickens, if you were going to the grocery store you’d take your eggs and you’d get so much money for the eggs and then you’d buy sugar and stuff with the money. My grandmother and my mom did that.
There weren’t washing machines. We had washboards, as they called them. Hang the clothes out on the line. In the wintertime you take them down when you split the wood, you’d have to take them inside to let them thaw, a lot of the times they would just freeze. And if the sun wasn’t out then they wouldn’t defrost very well. And I used to wear long underwear. And if they didn’t defrost then it was frozen underwear!
I was eager to see what a 102-year old would offer as her lessons for living. Here are some pieces of advice Wanda wanted to pass on to younger people.
You just have to take one day at a time. And just be thankful for what you have, and try to do the best you can. Get up in the morning and thank the Lord you’re up. Hopefully you’ll have a good day. I don’t do anything special; just depend on the Lord because if the Lord’s going to take me, He’s going to take me.
If you have a big problem, try to figure it out. Talk to somebody that you think could help you.
Don’t do drugs. I just heard somebody on television this morning who shot somebody; he did it because he was on drugs. I think if you get hooked on it, it’s a bad situation. And don’t get drunk. I don’t think you should get drunk.
Try to be as truthful as you can. Honesty, and trying to help as much as you can. Look at what’s happening in Washington, every time you turn around somebody’s greedy, getting into somebody’s pocket.
I think you should do things that are naturally good for you, eat healthy food, and try to do things that will keep you healthy. And have a good time – don’t forget that!
Aurelia, 76, provided a set of lessons that look at living from a somewhat different angle. She’s honest, suggesting, for example, that life won’t turn out the way we expect it. But by honing in on our attitude toward what happens to us, we stand a much greater chance for happiness.
Be kind to people. Most of them deserve it. Give every member of your family your undying loyalty.
Be flexible. Your life probably won’t turn out the way you thought it would.
You have no choice but to play the hand that’s dealt you. But you and only you make the choice to be happy or unhappy. Make a conscious decision to be happy. A Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp said during his time there he discovered the most important lesson of his life: they could take away his wealth, destroy his family, they could beat him, starve him, work him to death. But there was one thing they couldn’t touch or control, and that was his attitude.
Learn all you can about everything you can. Life is beautiful. Cozy up to it and share its confidences.
You are made up of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. If one of those areas is in need, give it your time and attention until your life is back in balance.
Remember what your mother and father taught you. Use those lessons as your guiding stars.
I’m often asked: What are some “quick tips” from the 2000 Legacy Project elders? Here’s a list of ten short, on-target lessons for keeping your attitude positive despite the inevitable setbacks life brings – from our oldest interviewees. Take a minute to peruse the view from age 80 and beyond.:
1. “Paste a smile on your face in the morning.”
2. “Don’t plan too much about the future. Live life day by day, and let it lead you to unexpected places.”
3. “Always stay optimistic, no matter what happens. Try to think of the good side of things, and not worry about the little details. You’ll be much happier and lead a much better life that way.”
4. “Enjoy life. Make use of what’s around you, and just let yourself have fun”
5. “Don’t be stuck in the past, learn to change with the times.”
6. “Keep on going. This is important with whatever you decide to do. Push yourself to continue and finish what you’ve already started.”
7. “Don’t second guess what you’ve done — be happy with life and with what you do. Don’t regret things too much.”
8. “Learn to live in the moment. It’s calming in a world that is not very peaceful.”
9. “I’d say letting go is probably the most important lesson. In my life I’ve moved around a lot and I’ve had to learn to not live in the past, and to just live in the moment.”
10. “To try to enjoy life as fully as possible; be good to others, try not to worry about the future as far as how long you are going to live; do the best you can everyday.”
We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was sent to us by John, age 77.
There are no definitive answers to any of life’s questions, but quality joy-in-life can be had in the pursuit of those answers.
Loyalty to one’s own personal beliefs and respect for others’ is the path to a serene life.
Family, country (maybe God if you are religious) need to be honored if one is to survive in an intolerant, unjust world.
Little things do matter and must be tended to so they don’t pile up to become complex things and more difficult to cope with.
Health and marriage must be treated in the same way…daily maintenance with occasional spoons full of sugar to make bad times go down.
You should listen more than speak, which is hard for us to do, so that takes practice.
You should find work that you will be content with because 40 years is a long time doing the same thing.
Heed the advice of your elders. They may not have all the answers, but they have had much more experience than you.
Experience can be a cruel teacher; learn from it.
Being cautiously pessimistic about life will make the sporadic good things that actually do happen seem even better.
You should not fret very long; all things pass. One way or another they will no longer be experienced.
Whether or not you believe in heaven and hell (religion) should not prevent you from being a nice person.
Injustice exists. Get used to it.