How to Survive a Crisis: Advice from the Wisest Americans

Who better to tell us how to survive and thrive in a crisis than elders who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and even the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic? It’s a pleasure to share these insights from the Cornell Chronicle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has us asking difficult questions: How will we survive this? What are we willing to sacrifice? What comes next?

In a moment that feels unprecedented, we can learn from the hard-won wisdom of a generation that weathered the most devastating events of the 20th century and lived to tell the tale.

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development, began a 10-year project interviewing older Americans in 2003, his research described in his 2012 book, “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”

Pillemer is also professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology. His major research interests include human development, with a special emphasis on family and social relationships in middle age and beyond.

For his research, Pillemer started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

Take the long view

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nation, the very longevity of the oldest Americans is proof this crisis will end and rebuilding will begin. The elders can provide us with the long view, confirming in a literal sense that “this, too, shall pass.”

“I met Holocaust survivors, refugees from many of the early 20th century’s other major conflicts, and people who lost everything in the Depression,” Pillemer said. “By the time I sat with them 40, 50, 60, or 70 years later, they had built comfortable, often successful and fulfilling lives. Their message was extraordinarily clear: Crises occur, societies change and, with resilience, we recover and move on.”

Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise. This lesson is also a reminder: Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

Be generous

If you want to help yourself, the elders said, help others. Pillemer noted that their own poor families helped out even poorer ones during the Great Depression. They remember World War II as a time when communities came together and everyone joined hands and hearts to support one another at home.

“Generously assisting other people to the extent that we can is a major way people are able to feel a sense of control,” Pillemer said. “Whether that was helping other people during the Great Depression or assisting the war effort during WWII. Generously helping others is a very good, self-interested strategy.”

Don’t worry – prepare instead

The oldest Americans have experience worrying about an event, going through the event and dealing with the fallout. According to Pillemer, they overwhelmingly agree: At best, worrying wastes time; at worst, it increases your suffering.

“They found that the best antidote to gnawing worries was taking action,” Pillemer said. “Preparation for the worst doesn’t just make sense for your protection; it also makes you feel empowered. From their experience of crisis, they advise that conscious, rational planning greatly reduces free-floating worry.”

Enjoy small daily pleasures

The last lesson Pillemer shared was the importance of experiencing joy and savoring small daily pleasures. 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 in a crisis depends on thinking small.

“A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” he said. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.”

Pillemer’s research highlights the wisdom of a disappearing generation, and the inestimable value of the stories and knowledge of the elders among us. And so, with no small amount of urgency, one final lesson taken from Pillemer’s lead: Ask your elders your questions while you can, and find comfort in their resilience.

Written by E.C. Barrett who is a freelance writer, for the Cornell Chronicle.

A Good Day for Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our Legacy Project readers! We hope you have appreciated the elder wisdom we’ve shared this year, and perhaps you have been inspired to seek advice from your own significant elders. On Thanksgiving, It’s worth noting that one of the strongest pieces of elder wisdom we uncovered in our studies was: Be grateful.gratefulness

An attitude of gratitude” is an expression that popped up frequently among the elders. Research shows that promoting a feeling of gratitude can lead to improved psychological well being, Here are a few lessons from the elders that can help motivate you in a grateful direction:

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 my favorite, from Becky, 89:

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.

And let me leave you with a wonderful quote on gratitude, this time not from one of our elders, but from the brilliant psychiatrist and author Oliver Sachs. Terminally ill from cancer, he wrote this in the last few months of his life:

My predominant feeling is one of gratitude, I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Getting Beyond the Need to Please Everyone

Agnes, 74, moved beyond trying to fulfill the expectations of others and the need to please everyone. She discovered daily joy in small things.

From the time I can remember, I tried to please first, my parents, then my friends, followed by my husband and children. It was hard work, and many times I did not do as well as I would have liked. I spent a lot of energy trying to live up to others’ and my own expectations. As I age, I have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or expects: the only one I have to answer to is myself. If I feel good about something, then it is good for me. If I try to please someone, it is because it pleases me to do so. I no longer stub my toe on details that shouldn’t matter and have much more energy to spend on those things that make me happy. I have ordered my priorities with the realization that my days are numbered, even if I don’t know how many there are. I watch the moon rise and the sun set, smell the roses and love deeply the many people who enhance my life.

Learning to live in the moment: Why not do it now?

In our interviews with hundreds of America’s elders in the Legacy Project, I learned that older people know some things on a deep level that the younger generation doesn’t. Perhaps the most important of these insights is a simple one: Life is short. The elders, from their vantage point, know how quickly life passes, and they urge us to savor it along the way. Rather than focusing only on our long-term plans and ambitions, the elders tell us to learn while we’re young how to live in the moment.

This point was brought home to me in an interview with John, 70, who lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to savor life’s daily pleasures. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

I suggest, based on John’s insights, that we all take at least a little time each day to stop and enjoy the present moment. Many of the Legacy Project elders point to peaceful savoring a major key to happiness.

A Remarkable Woman’s Philosophy of Life

Gladys, 89, was a truly remarkable woman, graduating from college in the 1930s and serving as one of the first female commissioned officers in the Navy in World War II, as part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She offered her lessons in a letter to the Legacy Project, and we were saddened to learn that she passed away less than a year later.

Over her long life, she developed a clearly articulated philosophy of life, one that bears reading and re-reading.

Do not waste energy on wishing things were different. Just look at the problem and ask, “What am I going to do about it?”

When you face a decision really think it through, then don’t look back. Make good decisions, handle social impasses well, and you won’t carry around psychological garbage-regrets.

Realize that no one can give you offense no matter how bad the comment or act may be. You can choose whether you will take offense or not. This knowledge gives you poise when entering totally unknown situations. If you feel you are a decent person because of the way you regularly handle things, you can learn by negative comment but it won’t hurt.

God is real. Prayer, trust, then tackling any situation facing you, regardless of your feeling of competence, gives you a feeling of peace as you face the task. I have tackled a number of situations others would not attempt.

When you share your faith, friendships become deeper and more permanent. Sharing means exactly that, and you listen thoroughly to the other person’s viewpoint to gain understanding. I have prayed with Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Roman Catholic friends. There is one God; we just have different ways of understanding. Our prayers were answered.

“He” or “She” in referring to God is a non-issue. Plants and animals have to reproduce to continue life. God is from everlasting to everlasting. The problem is with the English language. “It” does not mean a living being. The problem is not the nature of God, but the language we have available to express ourselves.

Let you imagination reach out – be creative in the areas that feel good to you. The weight of all that’s wrong with this country and the world is not on your shoulders. Be concerned and take action in the areas that you can reach; responsibility for the rest belongs to God, and to people nearer the problem.

Worry is not effective. Creative action and an upbeat attitude are.

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. I taught in the depth of the 1930’s depression. Poverty is not a lack of money. It is a lack of skills.

When my daughter read this, she said that there was something that should be added, “You seem so young, so mentally awake, that no one can guess your age.” That was a kind comment – I’ll be 90 in September!

“All That Is Good is Within Us: Gustav’s Advice from Age 70

Gustav, 70, offers an uplifting lesson, telling us that “all that is good is within us” and urging us to laugh and, yes, to all that's goodhave fun!

Beloved friends,

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.

Need Motivation?: Four Elders on Living Life to the Fullest

Sometimes the elders spoke with nearly one voice. So it was with their advice to take advantage of every day given to you. They didn’t feel the need to elaborate too much on this point; their message is more along the lines of “just do it!”

If you need motivation, post these four comments from four of the wisest Americans on your refrigerator:

Live each day to the fullest. Life is an adventure worth living. Smile! (Juanita, 87)

Well, my mother used to say live every day as if you had forever to live and yet also it was your last day. So make every day count. (Mei-Zhen, 76)

One of the things that comes to my mind is to do whatever it is that presents itself to you, rather than to let that opportunity pass and then regret a lack of involvement in it. Don’t miss an opportunity! (Eddie, 68)

I’ll put it this way. Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash in hand, spend it wisely. (Morris, 91)

More Advice about Overcoming Worry: From our Readers!

In a recent blog on the Huffington Post, I wrote about the most surprising regret we heard from the older people in the Legacy Project. Over and over, the elders told us: “I wish I hadn’t worried so much,” and “Worry wastes your life.”

Over a hundred readers provided their thoughts about worry and how they have overcome the worrying habit. Here are some of my favorite pieces of advice from folks all around the country. Enjoy their wisdom!

I recently have found myself coming to a similar though slightly different conclusion as that involving less worrying over the span of one’s lifetime. My own determination is to try and go through life with as few regrets as possible because what has happened is already done and over with and more often that not, these things are irreversible and and can not be redone or their outcomes changed. Just try not to make the same mistakes for things that did not quite work out like you wanted them to or which you might have done differently in hindsight. What’s done is done, for good or for bad. Try to focus your life on the here and now and on the – hopefully – brighter future that looms large up ahead, by the grace of God.

 In one week in 2009, one daughter graduated law school with honors and the other graduated from a demanding high school. They are nearly seven years apart in age because my husband, in spite of being successful, was always worried about the money for their education and other needs. At the second one’s graduation, we were holding hands, and as he squeezed mine, he said, “We should have had another one. I shouldn’t have worried so much about the money.” This was a real shock to me because he has trouble admitting when he’s mistaken about something, so this was a huge thing. Very lovable!

 At a very low period in my life, I was told by a priest, “Worry is interest on problems you do not have yet.”….It has stayed with me all these years

 I am not a worrier. Sure, I’ve had some things that have bothered me, but most of the time it doesn’t cross my mind. When worry does hit me, I jump on it to get rid of it. Not only is it a waste of time, but it poisons relationships, ruins your enjoyment of activities, and affects health.

 I found one really interesting thing about not being a worrier. Other people, suspected me of being uncaring. They worried about their teens. I didn’t. I did everything I could to make sure they were safe and following the rules, and then I enjoyed them. There were other moms who questioned if I loved them because, to them, love and worry were inseparable. Not only is that false, not worrying leads to better relationships with your kids, as far as I can tell.

I have a child with a terminal illness, although he has been defying the odds. On top of that I have developed some sort of auto immune disorder that robs me of my hearing, as the “breadwinner” in our family you can imagine the stress this has caused. There was a low point where I thought I simply couldn’t take it anymore. You know what got me there? Worrying. Im still working, he’s still alive, we are still living a decent life. I wish you the best in your struggle with this awful habit. 

I called a friend(actually my AA sponsor) years ago to tell her about some awful, terrible life-altering problem. She asked if I remembered a call I had made several months before with another awful, terrible life-altering problem. I did not. Her response. “Well, there you go” and she hung up. Best lesson ever. If I start fretting over anything I think: Is this something that will matter in 6 months? Almost always it is a no. One instance it was raining horribly, roof was leaking and water was coming close to back kitchen door – then lightning struck my computer and I sat down to cry. Remembered that phone call, changed attitude, and it turned out fine.

I’m 65. This article is 100% right! Human mistakes of the past can be valuable in teaching us life lessons so there’s no good reason to regret them. But time wasted cannot be reclaimed and serves no useful purpose whatsoever. It’s best to “fill the unforgiving moment with 60 seconds worth of distance run”. As I look back, there are parts of my life when I sure wish I’d done that instead of worrying about something I couldn’t do anything about. Good news is that I’m not worrying now! I think I just ran my course with it.

At 35, someone told me this quote. I’m 68 now and it has never left me: “Worry is like sitting in a rocking chair. It doesn’t accomplish a damned thing. It just gives you something to do!”

We welcome more of your thoughts and strategies about worry!

Back from Italy! Which Reminds Me of Maria

I’ve just come back from two weeks in Italy (yes, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it). While there, I noticed something that one doesn’t often see in the United States.

 In all the little villages, there is the custom of the passeggiata. In the early evening, after the heat of the day, whole families take a gentle stroll, usually winding up in the central piazza of the town. What you see are entire families: small children on bicycles or kicking soccer balls, parents, and grandparents. As you watch the nonni (most often the nonna, or grandmother) keeping a watchful eye on the grandchildren, there’s a feeling of real integration into family life.

Spending time in Italy made me think of one of our Legacy Project elders, Maria. Like many Italians of her generation, Maria immigrated to this country, experiencing a mix of opportunity, hardship, and resilience. Maria has been married for 57 years. It would be hard to find a happier 83-year old, despite what many would consider a hard life.

Maria shared her lessons for living:

I didn’t have opportunity to go to college but we did have a school, and we had to go miles away from home even for that. And sure, it’s very important to get a good education. But now young people expect too much and too soon. We didn’t have what we have today; we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have TV. So today they’re lucky, they can learn a lot. But I feel that they don’t enjoy life, they look for something they cannot find. So they go with the bottle, they go with drugs and all that.

My life has been hard at times. I went through so much that I can’t even explain. The decision to come to this country was the best one at that time, because we had to go someplace, but we lost everything, it was very hard to leave your own country. I left my hometown at sixteen with my father and my brother. What I learned there was how to grow up fast and take care of my brother who was little, be a mother for him. I worked hard, I will suggest to everybody that if they want something, work hard and they’re going to get it.

I wasn’t spoiled, I was happy with nothing, and that made me work hard to get a little bit more. Take life the way it comes, easy. Try not to think about tomorrow too much, you know? Enjoy today because you don’t know when it’s tomorrow, if you’re going to be here tomorrow.

I enjoy every minute! I love my husband; every time he goes out, I never let him go without a kiss because you always wonder if something can happen. Never fall asleep without saying goodnight to the husband, never. And don’t be mad, that’s what I learned in my life, don’t be mad at other people. Enjoy things now, and stop worrying.

“You Can Do Anything for an Hour” – Contest Winner

We asked young people to submit lessons they have learned from an elder in their lives, and we picked three winners. Here’s the first – a great example of what we can learn from elders if we pay attention. Danny Ellison penned this winning entry.

I learned from an older gentleman once that you can do ANYTHING for an hour.

I (a 30 year old man) was casually playing fiddle with a group of older folks at a bluegrass festival when the director of the festival came to our group and told us that there had been a health issue with one of the professional bands due to perform later that afternoon. He asked us if we would like to play in their place.

We excitedly accepted. We practiced as long as we could, and although we played well together, we were no match for the other professional groups playing that weekend. As we approached the stage for our part of the show (following one of the best bluegrass bands I have ever heard, I might add), I told my older friend that I felt like I was too nervous to play. That’s when he said, “Son, you can do ANYTHING for an hour.”

 I have since applied this wisdom to ANYTHING I dread doing and it has gone a long way in helping me put things into perspective.