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. Continue reading
Our summer interns are back! Three great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Ryan, a rising senior attending York College at the City University of New York, majoring in Gerontological Studies and Services and minoring in Black Studies. He learned an important lesson about making the most of one’s life – travel!
Vacations are great opportunities to escape. They allow for time to de-stress from all of the work and anxieties left back at home. When traveling, though, perhaps more significant than what you leave behind is where you go. Retirement provides a great opportunity for traveling, but there is something to be said about traveling at a young age. When George, 73, was asked about a turning point in his life, he did not have to think twice for an answer:
When I left General Motors, before I went into teaching, I decided I was going to take my retirement. And at the time I was perhaps 35 at the most. So I decided I was going to retire. And I took that time to travel. And I traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. And that changed my life a great deal, because it taught me a lot about cultures and the value of having the experience of other cultures and to compare cultures and to see how other people lived and how they did things. And I’ve been pursuing travel ever since then. And that was one of the key turning points in my life, probably when I was about 35, and determined that I wanted to retire to see what retirement would be like in the future. A weird choice, but I’ve always been a little weird.
When I went into the classroom, I went in telling students, ‘If you don’t travel, you don’t become educated.’ Because to be educated you gotta have a whole panorama of experiences and those aren’t going to come from home. Especially when I got to teach in New Jersey, where kids had not even left the state. Had never even left the state and were in college. And that was kind of sad to me that they had nothing, no point of reference in which to place things, you know? And so that was kind of sad and scary and so I’ve always preached ‘Travel is the second part of education.
As I get closer and closer to graduation, George’s suggestion to travel becomes more and more appealing!
John MacGregor, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic 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.
I can summarize the lessons I have learned in 71 years of life. I’ve had two marriages: the first one unsuccessful and the second spectacularly successful for the past twenty years. I have two daughters and two stepdaughters and have excellent relations with three of the four. I also have six grandchildren. My husband and I agree that the most important things for a happy life are: luck, flexibility, and keeping one’s options open.
First, luck. No matter how conscientious and hardworking one is there is a limit beyond which one has absolutely not control. One’s health, circumstances, and children are subject to all sorts of outside influences. A catastrophic illness, accident, job dislocation, etc. can wreak havoc with one’s best laid plans. As far as children, no matter how carefully one supervises them at home, once they are away from hoe, other forces come into play and one can only hope that they do not come to harm. So it pays to be lucky!
Second, flexibility. To build lasting relationships with loved ones and to adapt to unforeseen problem situations one has to be flexible. You must be able to “roll with the punches” or you will be broken by them.
Third, keeping one’s options open. Often one is faced with forks in the road, choices which must be made. If one is wise, one will try not to leave oneself with no other recourse. It is not true that one can always retrace one’s steps. So one must carefully weigh the possible consequences of one’s actions. When I found myself with two young children in an unfortunate marriage, I was fortunate that I had the educational background to get a job that enabled me to obtain a divorce and support myself and my family. If I had not had this background life would have been far more difficult for us all. And that is why I always stressed to my daughters that they have a good education.
The most important lesson I have learned is to live in the present moment. This is our gift, right here, right now. This is why it is called “the present.”
To see the outer world as a reflection of the inner world. If we would like to clean up the former, focus on the latter. Have fun. Laughter is great, belly laughter is greater.
All that is good is within us. If we want more peace, love, joy, health, happiness, etc. in the world, focus where we can have the greatest impact: within our own skin. Outside our skin we have very little control. As we clean up our mind, body and emotions, our essential goodness radiates clearly through us. This easeful, peaceful, useful joyful radiance has a greater impact than we can ever imagine.
The secret to life is to have fun. Listen to our own heart. Discover and respect our own gifts. Live a joyful life sharing our gifts through our thoughts, words and actions. Live like a child.
Laugh when we fall down, make mistakes. Get up, try again, laugh, fall down, try again. Success is ours. Everything else gives it flavor. Get up, fall down, get up. To inspire is to breather in or to motivate. To expire is to breathe out or to die. For as long as practical, follow each expiration with an inspiration.
We are still so into our elders’ lists of their lessons for living, we want to share a few more. It’s amazing how many people sat down and summed up their advice for younger generations.
Today we hear from Gwen, 70, who provides an insightful – and sometimes unusual – list of life lessons. She tells us to embrace life with exuberance and joy, giving to others while not forgetting to take care of ourselves.
When I look back over my life, the most important things I have learned are:
I truly do create my own reality.
Be lavish in loving those close to me, Don’t hold back.
I am my ancestors, they are me, we are one.
My children are my crown, my grandchildren the jewels therein, my great grandchildren the pure gold setting.
There are times to keep my mouth shut no matter what!
Friends are precious – and they can be animals.
Beauty surrounds me as much as I allow and let it in, even in death.
Its so good to laugh, especially with those you love.
Respect others and be kind – it will take you far.
I have a soul and it can sing, when in nature with trees, flowers, and plants, it has a voice.
Gardens are heaven on earth.
I love and take care of myself; only then can I assist another, really love another, care for another.
Have fun, play, tell a joke, laugh, be silly, outrageous, every day, it keeps the doctor away.
To love myself, enjoy myself, trust myself, be good to myself. Then give of myself. Fill up first, never try to give out of an empty container, it just doesn’t work.
Words are life or death, choose wisely before opening mouth.
Harmony in a family is its greatest assest.
To remain flexible, in thought word and deed, and be ready to party at the drop of a hat!
To sing loudly and lustily even though I can’t carry a tune – it clears out a lot of cob webs in my mind.
There are second and third and fourth and on and on chances in life. Just keep on keeping on, it’s journey.
Solitude is warm soup on a cold day, to a hungry spirit.
I am the rock in the family now, and rocks don”t make a lot of noise. They just are.
What makes us happy? There’s so much interest in this topic that a veritable mountain of books 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.”
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!
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.
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!