Giving Thanks: The Core of Elder Wisdom

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!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Learning to Swim – in the Flow of Living

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.

Seek Contentment

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.

The View from 102: Lessons from a Century of Life Experience

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!

“Cozy up to Life”: Aurelia’s List for Living

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.

A “Top Ten” List of Lessons for Keeping a Positive Attitude

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.”

John’s List of Life’s Lessons Learned – Pursue Questions, Not Answers

We welcome contributions of life lessons to the Legacy Project site. This wonderful list of lessons learned was list.2sent 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.

Why I’m Looking Forward to December

I’ve spent a lot of the past decade interviewing wise and fascinating older people. But I think I’m in for what may be my most exciting interviewee ever: Tao Porchon Lynch. For anyone able to get to New York City on lynchDecember 17 to join us, it should be a memorable event.

At 98 years young,Tao Porchon Lynch is still teaching yoga.  She marched with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930 Salt March, helped Jews escape the Nazis as a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and walked with Martin Luther King. It would take much more than a blog post to list her other achievements, from being a contestant on America’s Got Talent (at age 96), to writing about the “spiritual side of being, to maintaining an active yoga teaching schedule.

The organizers of the series on life wisdom at the Rubin Museum have invited us to discuss “the secrets to a good life.” I can’t imagine a better source for information about that theme than Tao!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!

Finding Happiness in Simple Things

Many of the elders in the Legacy Project advise us that the present moment is what is critically important, and that we miss each happiness notemoment in our drive toward the future and our pursuit of material goods. Evette, 79, tells about the things that delight her and make life worth living – and none of them are “big ticket” items.

At my age you learn that “things” aren’t important; people are.

The love of your family, the sharing of their milestones and the joy when they ask you about yours.

The touch of their young smooth cheek or hand on your non-elastic skin sends warmth all over you.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for a good book while you’re under a down comforter.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for good hearty laughter that brings color to your cheeks and a jump to your heart.

I’ve learned that when you want to stay in bed because of aching joints, a brisk walk or a stationary bike does wonders!

I’ve learned that everyone has a story that’s worth listening to.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask your children for help even if you were fiercely independent before.

I’ve learned that the beat of your heart is dependent on the hearts of your children and grandchildren.