What You Don’t Have Can Teach You a Lot About Happiness

How can you be happy without a lot of material things? Families are dealing with that problem today.

The experts on the issue are oldest Americans, the last surviving witnesses to the Great Depression. Bonita, 96, tells about a childhood most of us can hardly imagine. Living on very little, Bonita, her family, and her friends found it possible to be very happy.

Here’s her story:

People now think they need so much to be happy. We were happy in my family, and just think of what we didn’t have!

To give you an idea of what we lived without, here are a few practical things that I have had to learn over my life:

• To use electric lights rather than kerosene lamps.

• To use electric stoves and later a microwave oven instead of a wood stove.

• To use an electric washing machine instead off a scrub board, boiler on the stove, and three galvanized wash tubs.

• To use an electric clothes dryer instead of hanging the clothes on the line outside.

• To have a faucet in the kitchen rather than getting water by the pail-full from a spring in the meadow a fourth of a mile away.

• To have an indoor bathroom rather than taking a bath in the wash tub in front of a kitchen wood stove.

• To have toilet paper rather than an old Sears and Roebuck catalog.

• To use an indoor toilet rather than the privy behind the house.

• To live in a home with an electric iron rather than a sad iron heated on the stove.

• To listen to a TV rather than a Victrola.

• To answer the telephone when it rings rather than having to check out the special ring on a party line.

• To use frozen and prepared foods from the store rather than baking bread and eating garden and home canned foods.

• To buy ready-made clothes in a store instead of those made by a dressmaker who came to our house.

There are so many things people take for granted today, that we didn’t have. For example, life without a bathroom is hard to describe. One has to live it to know what it is like. Our bathing in those days was done in a basin of water that we carried to our bedrooms. In the winter, this meant trying to undress as near as possible to the stovepipe which added a bit of heat to the bedroom. During the winter, Mother tried to see to it that we each had a bath of some sort once a week. In the morning we washed a bit in the kitchen.

Our toilet was a small shed about six feet square. They were always built with three holes so daily trips to the privy often meant that it could be a social affair. My other memory of this building is of the swarms of flies in the summer. They buzzed and hummed around beneath you and kept you company whenever nature called you to this place.

The other big job before running water was doing the family washing for ten people. It started on Sunday night when a big copper wash boiler had to be filled with water from the spring up in the meadow. This would bring the water up to the room temperature during the night. Then Mother would heat the water to boiling on the wood stove. All the white clothes were boiled first and then washed. It was supposed to be more sanitary to boil the sheets and underwear. Then the hot clothes were removed with a “clothes stick”- a long bleached pole- and carried by the pail-full to the back wash room where we had three galvanized tubs on a large bench. In one tub, we rubbed the clothes on a wash board with Fels Naptha Soap. We rinsed the clothes in the second tub and then put them thru bluing water which seemed to counteract the yellowish color that the clothes often had.

The four older girls all took turns at the wash board in 15 minute shifts. The clothes were put through a hand wringer that had two rubber rollers and squeezed out some of the water. The clothes were then hung outside on a clothes line in the side yard or on the porch in the winter. I can see the long underwear during the winter as it froze stiff almost as soon as it was put on the line. Later in the day we had to bring the clothes back into the house and thaw them out and finished drying them on racks by the wood stove. The clothes really did smell sweet and clean after being out in the fresh air. Mother’s hands were always cold and sore as she went out on those cold winter days to hang out the clothes. Often she would heat the wooden clothes pins in the oven so that they would warm her hands for a few minutes.

Ironing was started on Tuesday and often took all week to do. Flat irons called “sad irons” were heated on the stove and then wiped on a cloth containing paraffin. I think this was to wipe off any smoke from the stove and to make the irons slide easier. We had both irons with handles fastened to the iron and detachable handles which we preferred. As the iron cooled off it had to go back on the stove and we’d try to find a hotter one to use. In those days we always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and usually had two tablecloths along with everyone’s personal clothes. It was a really big job.

This house was lighted with kerosene lamps. They were smoky and smelly. On Saturday we had to collect all of them and wash the chimneys, rinse them and dry them. The wicks had to be trimmed. The base of the lamp was filled with kerosene and then the lamps were each returned to the rooms where they belonged. The light that they produced was not very good.

The lamp was usually placed in the middle of our large dining room table and at night we all sat around it to do our homework. The older members of the family checked on the younger ones to see that pages of addition were completed and correct or that we had memorized our spelling words for the next day. We practiced our reading assignments by reading to some older member of the family from our reading books. Our teachers wanted each of us to memorize a short poem each week and we were expected to recite it in front of the class during a Friday afternoon assembly. “October’s Bright Blue Weather” and “Robert Reese” were two of my favorites.

With no television or record players, we had to make our own fun and entertainment. When we were through working on our school work for the next day, we often played games. We had checkers, dominoes, caroms, and card games like flinch, authors, concentration, and spit. Sometimes we played hide the thimble or spin the platter. We loved to play dress-up in the old clothes that were sent to us from relatives in California or the Lessells family in New York. We had names like Mrs. Colburn and Mrs. Osborn and would talk to each other at great length about our children, our husbands, and our lives while dressed in long black skirts, fancy lace blouses, and pretty old evening dresses form our relatives who were a bit better off than our family financially.

Do You Need More Stuff? Some Christmas Elder Wisdom

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.

You Need to Do What You Love

Many students are involved in summer internships right now, so it’s worth taking a moment to learn this lesson from our elders: focus on work for its intrinsic value more than for external rewards.

Marty, 71, had a very satisfying work life as an engineer and entrepreneur. But he exhorts younger people to think about success not in terms of money, and gives you some important questions to ask yourself about your career.

Earning money seemed to be how they measured a success when we were young. Some people went to college but most people went to work, they got a job and went to work so everything revolved around: What are you earning?  What are you making? And so the more money you made the more successful you were.

And that became more important than: What should I do with my life? What do you want to develop? What do you want to learn?’  But by learning and experiencing that part of your life, you’re going to be doing something you like doing,  that you want to do, and money follows. Money follows. That’s the way it works.

And if money doesn’t follow, you’re doing something you like anyway. So it was like when I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker, a father with his kids and they did the shoes, leather soles and stuff. They were a pretty cool family. They loved working there and they loved making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big-shot corporate guy.

Jeremiah’s Lesson for Living: Wisdom Gathered by our Summer Interns!

Our summer interns are back! Two great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older Welcome-Interns-Signpeople about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Margo Rieman, a junior attending Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, majoring in Management and Psychology and minoring in French. While conducting her interview, Margo learned the importance of thinking wisely, working hard and saving your money. Here’s her report:

When one is young, it can be difficult to make smart decisions and spend your time wisely because understanding and effectively anticipating the long-term costs and benefits associated with a given choice can be challenging. Many people rely on past experiences and invested costs when making life decisions. However, ignoring other factors – particularly the future – may result in a short-sighted perspective.

Jeremiah, a former World War II veteran and now a 99-year old New Yorker, had some wisdom to offer on this topic. Jeremiah made it clear that there are certain things in life that should be prioritized when making major life decisions, despite your immediate wants and needs. Jeremiah recants his experiences below and emphasizes the importance of thinking wisely, going to college, and saving your money.

I was a veteran in World War II. I could have gone to college on the G.I.’s Bill of Rights but I wanted to live, more or less. If you grew up in the 30’s you didn’t have the same opportunities as you do today because of the lack of money. So once you’re in service, and you accumulate some money, after you get discharged you have this money supposedly – what they call, “on the books” – coming to you, so you want to go out and buy a car, which is a mistake. I should have used it to go to college. I wasn’t a gambler or anything like that so I kind of accumulated quite a bit of money.

That perspective, the war, changed me, you know. Plus I had a high school education, and I wasn’t real smart, in fact I was below level but I could have went to college. I didn’t want to, I wanted to have a good time. Well, now I’m pushing 100. I never saved any of my money, and I’m broke. When you see on the television that you need hundreds of thousands of dollars for retirement, they’re not far off.

Jeremiah concluded:

Work hard, save your money. You’re always going to have stressful experiences, but if you know what you’re doing, you can do it. Be conservative. Be very dedicated to what you’re doing. You gotta have fun but it should be 20 percent of your efforts. The thing is if you do it when you’re young, you’ll be better off when you get older.

Jeremiah’s advice forewarned me of the importance of saving while I’m young and to work hard in all my endeavors. He gave me confidence that I will succeed if I am knowledgeable and experienced in the work I am pursuing.

 

 

Want to Be Independent Later On? Elder Wisdom Says: Save Now!

It’s a pleasure to share a guest blog by our third summer intern, Zoe Eisenberg. Zoe is a sophomore financial independenceat Ithaca College. She is majoring in gerontology and plans to minor in Legal Studies. Zoe was excited to learn from the elders themselves through the Legacy Project’s in-depth interviews. This lesson about the role of financial planning in maintaining independence throughout life came from Richard, age 68.

Here’s Zoe’s post:

Independence is a value held dearly by many, and it is something that we often express without thinking twice. During my interview with Richard, the importance of independence in his life stood out as a recurring theme and valuable lesson.

Richard grew up in an environment that encouraged independence. His father died at a young age, and within his small family he was expected to be responsible for himself. As a young man, he traveled extensively while serving in the army and working in the computer industry. Though Richard was married briefly, he never had children and he pointed to this as one of the reasons he continued to lead such an independent life throughout middle age.

When reflecting on the choices that have allowed him to maintain his independent lifestyle, Richard emphasized the importance of saving financially for one’s future:

That’s why it’s important to think about your future, and think about money, and think about saving. Don’t get into debt, save for your retirement at an early age. I wish I would have known that. I didn’t really start until I was in my 50’s, you should start when you’re in your 20’s.

 

If I had done it at 20, I’d be a millionaire. I did it at 50 so I’m a “thousandaire.” It’s a huge difference. And you don’t know when your life is going to be over – Plan for the longest time. Start saving! And then do things you want to do.

Today, Richard is adapting to new levels of interdependence as he manages health challenges that have limited his mobility. However, his determination to be self-sufficient to the greatest extent possible is fueling his recovery and adaptation to changing circumstances. Valuing independence continues to serve Richard well – and careful financial planning is one way to do it.

Money Advice from the Wisest Americans

Some of the most common New Year’s resolutions have to do with money: saving more, making more, spending less, andelder advice money so on. America’s elders, however, urge you to take a broader view of money and what it means in your life. The “experts on living” in the Legacy Project have some excellent advice on the topic.

And I didn’t even have to write it up for this blog post! Because the highly talented financial journalist Morgan Housel at Motley Fool wrote an excellent article (10 Money Lessons from Elderly Americans Who Have Seen It All), based on my book 30 Lessons for Living. Take a look – it will help you think “outside of the box” about money issues over the coming year.

Sensible Lessons about Money

Sometimes I find myself thinking: Whatever happened to good sense? When it comes to money, the elders offer advice that is, well, sensible. They came from a generation of savers, re-users, and careful consumers. Here’s 91-year old Betty’s advice for financial well-being:

You need a checking account and a savings account. Take each paycheck to the bank and deposit, don’t cash it. Hold out enough for cash purchases, groceries, etc.  Leave enough in the checking account to pay current bills. Whenever possible, put a little in the savings account. This is your emergency fund for unexpected expenses and a start toward your savings.

Be wary of credit cards. Never use one unless you can pay the bill in full at the end of the month. The interest can be devastating to your finances.

Aim toward home ownership. Rent is a constant drain with nothing to show for it.

For major purchases, save first and pay cash. This goes for cars and it can be done.  As soon as I’ve bought a car, I start saving (in the savings account) for the next. Making payments adds much more to the cost. That money can be yours to use.

When you have your finances organized and are keeping out of debt you are ready for the next step. Start your life savings. It is all right to start small but you can’t start too soon. Locate a full service brokerage firm and appointment with a financial adviser, who will listen to your needs and advise accordingly. Medium risk stock will likely serve you best. Later you can use the dividends for extra income. If you keep increasing your stock portfolio, it will provide financial security for retirement. Never buy stock from a small outfit that only deals with a limited type of stock or on advice of an individual.

Sensible Elder Lessons about Money

Sometimes I find myself thinking: Whatever happened to good sense? When it comes to money, the elders offer advice that is, well, sensible. They came from a generation of savers, re-users, and careful consumers. Here’s 91-year old Betty’s advice for financial well-being:

You need a checking account and a savings account. Take each paycheck to the bank and deposit, don’t cash it. Hold out enough for cash purchases, groceries, etc.  Leave enough in the checking account to pay current bills. Whenever possible, put a little in the savings account. This is your emergency fund for unexpected expenses and a start toward your savings.

Be wary of credit cards. Never use one unless you can pay the bill in full at the end of the month. The interest can be devastating to your finances.

Aim toward home ownership. Rent is a constant drain with nothing to show for it.

For major purchases, save first and pay cash. This goes for cars and it can be done.  As soon as I’ve bought a car, I start saving (in the savings account) for the next. Making payments adds much more to the cost. That money can be yours to use.

When you have your finances organized and are keeping out of debt you are ready for the next step. Start your life savings. It is all right to start small but you can’t start too soon. Locate a full service brokerage firm and appointment with a financial adviser, who will listen to your needs and advise accordingly. Medium risk stock will likely serve you best. Later you can use the dividends for extra income. If you keep increasing your stock portfolio, it will provide financial security for retirement. Never buy stock from a small outfit that only deals with a limited type of stock or on advice of an individual.

Putting Money in Perspective

Many of the elders grew up in the Great Depression, and they knew what it was like to live on almost nothing. But there was something else they learned: you could be very happy with almost nothing if you had a loving family, a supportive neighborhood, and you weren’t competing with a lot of other people who had more than you did.

Maybe this is why so many of the life lessons of the elders had to do with not over-valuing material things. They don’t want us all to be starving artists, but they want you not to be ruled by possessions or an overwhelming urge to make money.

Ed, 76, a retired engineer, told me:

You don’t want your things to own you. The best example that I can give you is my mother and father. Their house was their idol. All the stuff in it was pristine and laid out and my mother saved every book she ever read, every lesson plan, everything she’d ever done, and the house was chock full of all kinds of stuff. Some really good stuff, but, after my father died we took a few things and all the rest went into the dumpster. All that worry, all that thought. And it’s hard to shake. You look at all the stuff and think ‘all this crap owns me, I’m a prisoner of it.’ There’s a lesson in this that I hoped I’ve learned while I’m still alive. I’m not owned by expensive things because they’re expensive.

Micah, 77, stressed not choosing work just for the paycheck:

That was always the way people that measured a success when we were young. Some people went to college but most people went to work. They got a job and went to work, and everything revolved around ‘what are you earning? what are you making?’ and stuff like that. So  the more money you made the more successful you were. And that became of more importance than ‘what should I do with my life? what do you want to develop? what do you want to learn?’ But by learning and experiencing that part of your life, you’re going to be doing something you like doing, you want to do, and money follows. Money follows.

That’s the way it works. And if money doesn’t follow, you’re doing something you like anyway. When I was a kid, down the street we had a shoemaker. He was a father with his kids and they all did the shoes, leather soles and stuff, and they were a pretty cool family. They loved working there. They were making shoes and fixing shoes. So there’s ways to be happy without having to be this big shot corporate guy.

Good Thought for the Season: Being Happy In Spite of Hard Times

As we prepare for the holidays, many families are worried about their financial situations. Perhaps we can take some reassurance from the elders in the Legacy Project who experienced real hardship in the Great Depression.

Among adults, the Great Depression caused the disruption of professional and personal life and led to immense stress and uncertainty. For the Legacy Project elders – who were children or teenagers at the time – a somewhat different picture emerges. With few better off to whom they could compare themselves, and without high expectations of material excess, they simply learned to have a good time with what they had. This can be a powerful first lesson for how to be happy in spite of difficult financial times.

For example, two elders told us:

I grew up during the Depression, but I didn’t know I was poor because we had our own garden, our own car, our own chickens- everything that we had, we produced. I learned also to try to be happy – you went dancing, you went to baseball games, and most of it didn’t cost much. (Evelyn, 91)

I would say that our generation came from a more impoverished society, so our expectations weren’t that great like you guys are. You people grew up with computers and everything else, but we didn’t. So we didn’t expect it. We have it now, but if I lost it tomorrow morning it wouldn’t bother me, I’ve lived most of my life without it. (Phillip, 87)

I also think of Jennifer, 85 years old, with such good health that she traveled last year to Germany, Canada, and Alaska. She is an active volunteer and participates in continuing education programs. When approached by us, she quipped: “’Advice about life’ for younger generations in your letter surely opens the gates for us oldies!”

Her life’s lessons clearly represent the “happy in spite of” mentality:

In spite of growing up and attending college in the Depression years, the “good life” for me began in earliest childhood when I was raised in a loving and encouraging family and enriched by many inspiring role models. Then, fortunately, our marriage was a happy and rewarding one that enabled us to meet ups and downs together. For both of us, gratitude and giving thanks to our parents and others along the way was simply a way of life. I am not sure the importance of a simple “Thank you” or caring gesture is stressed enough today. We likely became more conscious of this as our family grew, and greatly appreciate seeing this attribute in our grandchildren and their young children.

It may sound like old-fashioned advice, but a focus on “gratitude and giving thanks” may help all of us this holiday! And if you have wisdom to share about the holidays, please post it here!