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.

The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply

It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.

Past generations had it about right.  Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply.  One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.

Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.

Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.

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!

Honesty and Trust: A WW II Veteran’s Lesson for Living

Like many others, we at the Legacy Project have been following the D-Day commemorations. In my book 30 Lessons for Living, I was privileged to interview many members of the War and Crisis Generation, capturing their wisdom before they left us (only a few WW II veterans are still alive).

If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of  the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s  honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.

And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.

Max, age 95, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:

 My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.

As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.

Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.

Love Your Kids – But Don’t Be a Pushover

One thing that surprised me in interviews with the Legacy Project elders was that, in general, they don’t approve of physical punishment of children. But that definitely does not mean they don’t believe in setting firm limits.  They believe in firmness, but they also acknowledge the need to strike a balance between respect and discipline. Here’s what some of them told me:

Yes, you need to set limits on them, don’t wait until they are teenagers and say you have to do this, you have to start when they are quite young. In fact, from the day they’re born; you start from the day they’re born and you set limits on your children. You have to love them but you also have to be stern enough to set limits. (Jeanette, 79)

 Well, you’ve got to be firm but not overbearing, you have to set a good example, and you don’t need a lot of rules, you just need to let them know what you expect and you get their respect. (Manuel, 83)

It’s a case of being consistent. When you’re raising a bunch of kids you’ve got to be consistent in your discipline and your handling of them, and yet at the same time understand them and help to see their point of view and help them along the way with what they want to do with their lives without being too pushy on the whole subject. (Guy, 72)

Well,  if you’re going to raise children, you’ve got to raise them right. You can’t turn them loose and let them go and do things that they want to do because they get into too much trouble. Discipline is important. I don’t like no squabbling in the house, if they’re going to do that, let them get in the yard and fight it out. (Queenie, 85)

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.

Make Thanksgiving “Elder Wisdom Day!”

Once again this year, I propose a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.

Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.

Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.

But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.

Now here’s the important point: Old people are still 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. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.

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.

Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) 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 Thanksgiving (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. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.

So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!

Questions for the elders:

  • 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?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

“It All Boils Down to Choices”: Marge’s List of Lessons for Living

A profound list of lessons from Marge, 84. Two pieces of advice stand out to me: “It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life.: And: “Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along.”

I write poetry for children and for the old. The media generation escapes me. I really would like to know what is going on, but it all seems as alien as the planet Mars. What could I tell them out of my experience that would have any meaning for them?

The world has changed in so many ways, most of them unhealthy . Perhaps the Indian elders are able to talk to their youth, since they have the tribal background and are traditionally respected. In my 84-year-old case, I feel that I have lost their attention. If I could re-capture it for fifteen minutes, I would say this:

It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life. When you are young, lots of the choices have to do with sex and relationships. Use your head, and go carefully.

If you have a chance, get as much education as you can, because it gives you options you would not have otherwise. Find out what your strong suite is, and follow up on it. Don’t be afraid to seek advice . If words are your thing, and you think you might make a writer, don’t wait until you are 70 years old as I did.

Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along. This, in fact, is what I did, and I had a wonderful ride – but if someone had asked me “What do you want to do with your life? You’re only going to get one.” I might have focused more, and perhaps made a difference . But no one ever did. Too late for regrets!

One must make a living, and it is not easy these days. But don’t insist on being a millionaire. Focus on making enough money to bring up your children, educate them, save and invest anything extra for your old age.

If you have children, spend time with them, doing “stuff” like going on beach picnics, going to the zoo , reading poetry and stories at bed time, making cookies, at Christmas, singing with them, using art materials( Kids clean up well.) These are things they will remember in later life.

I think I’ll stop here. If I get preachy, no young person is going to listen.

Love God, Self, Others – then Sin Outrageously! Sage Advice

Sage, age 80, lives up to her name; she’s a true “sage” – A very wise elder (we posted a recording of her views on marriage here).

When asked about her most important advice for younger people, she shared what seemed to me to be a straightforward recommendation: set clear priorities. But then she provided a highly unusual take on that piece of advice – you may need to think about it for a bit!

A main lesson of mine is: Have your priorities straight. Now, this takes some explaining. I am a poet, and I came up with a haiku, a three lined poem that sort of expresses what I think that  life is about.

The first line is: “Love God, self, others – then sin most outrageously often as you can.”

Now think that one through. If you have your priorities straight – you love God, self, others – well, what kind of sinning can you do? Because you can’t. If you have your priorities straight, you are not going to do anything that is going to hurt someone else or yourself.

And the reason for saying love God, self, others is this: If you do not love yourself and what God has made you, you are not going to be able to love others; you will always be judging them. So there’s a reason for the priorities being put in that order. It makes sense when you think it through. Once your priorities are straight then dare almost anything!

The Values I’ve Learned, Old-Fashioned But True

Some of the elders shared their core values, summing up wisdom gained over a lifetime. One of these responses came from Maureen, who is nearing her hundredth birthday.

I am 97 and 5/6 so I have had a long learning time! (I was at my university in June for my 75th reunion.) These are some of the values I’ve learned over my life; old fashioned but true.

1. Integrity. Without honesty, dependability, truthfulness, and self-respect life isn’t worth living.

2. Commitment. To marriage and sexual fidelity. To good family life, for without it, even though one inherits a good “nature” it is difficult through “nurture” to learn patience, respect for others, cooperation, and love anywhere else.

3. Healthy living. Best learned in family.

4. Respect for racial, cultural, and religious differences. Not only tolerated but understood if possible.

5. Hard work. Setting attainable goals and persistence in attaining them. One doesn’t have to be a wealthy big shot to be a successful person or have a “good life”.

6. Immersion in a “cause” bigger than oneself.

7. Expansion of one’s interests through reading, study of arts and sciences. Keep up to date.

8. Deep but unfanatical faith in a higher being. It is basic to a caring, generous, whole human being who can maintain equilibrium in a turbulent world.

By trying to learn these “lessons” I find that one is bound to be respected, loved, happy, even considered a role model.