The Legacy Project http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans Fri, 11 Apr 2014 14:01:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://blogs.cornell.edu/?v=3.8.3 Funny and Wise: George’s List for Living http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/04/10/georges-list-for-living/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/04/10/georges-list-for-living/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 11:09:21 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=824 Sometimes the elders find a way to combine good sense and humor with being a bit “on the edge.” Here’s a list for living from George, 81 –   a self-described “notorious old geezer!”list for living.2

Being a notorious old geezer myself, I decided to pass along these life lessons that I have learned:

 1, Never build a house in a flood plain.

 2. Anytime you’re offered a free lunch, turn it down. Chances are it’s someone selling time shares or rare coins.

 3. Live BENEATH your income. And sock the surplus into conservative, interesting-paying investments.

 4. Avoid all state and national lotteries. They’re a tax on the stupid.

 5. Don’t smoke; it’s the No. 1 cause of shortened lives and aging morbidity.

 6. Use credit cards and enjoy the 25-day float, but pay off the balances every month.

7. Exercise daily and vigorously (tennis is my passion).

8. Eat well, but sensibly, and maintain your normal weight.

9. Enjoy wide-ranging activities — books, concerts, plays, movies, sports, etc. They stimulate your mental, physical, and emotional powers.

10. Develop the art of critical thinking. Untested theories are just that — unproved theories.

11, And don’t give advice to people who don’t ask for it. And even if they do, be wary. Most people don’t want your opinion, just confirmation of their own prejudices.

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Ten Tips from Nita: A List for Living http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/31/nitas-list-for-living/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/31/nitas-list-for-living/#comments Mon, 31 Mar 2014 10:40:10 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=801 Here’s another “list for living” from one of the Legacy Project Elders. Nita, age 71, advises: list for living.2

1) Be kind and generous

2) Nurture good friendships and good will with family, neighbors, coworkers, and others

3) Read, especially good literature and history

4) Live frugally, spending less than you earn

5) Take care of your health

6) Set aside savings and invest savings for your future and your family’s future

7) Establish the habit of supporting causes financially, those you care about, church or community, educational institutions, worldwide charities, medical research etc

8)Keep financial records in order

9) Don’t bore the younger generations with tales of living during the Depression

10) Leave instructions or make arrangements for your death

11) “Old age is not for sissies” but is nothing to fear

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Five Tips for Happier Living from Liza http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/20/lizas-list-for-living-be-open-to-experiences/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/20/lizas-list-for-living-be-open-to-experiences/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 10:33:52 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=717 It’s been a while since we posted one of the elders “Lists for Living.” We love these organized lists, in which some of the list for livingLegacy Project elders were able to sum up a lifetime of wisdom in a few key points. Liza, 68, has some thought-provoking ideas for living the good life:

1. You will NOT experience regret over a decision to remain single and childless. Creating your own life can be as exciting as the predictable stresses (and even the joys) of the procreation and education of progeny.

2. Friendships should fit your emotional and intellectual needs. You should have many different kinds of friends – never depend upon just one or two. Understand that you, and thus your friends, should be expected to change over time. Llife is far richer if you vary the nature of your relationships – it is stifling to hitch yourself to/depend upon/share experiences with only one other person.

3. Always take advantage of an opportunity to have new experiences – travel, activities or in the realm of ideas. You learn as much from unpleasant experiences as you do from pleasureable ones.

4. Strive throughout your life to achieve a clear sense of who you are, what you want, what you want to be recalling as you die, and how you wish to be remembered.

5. Devote as much time as possible toward understanding the evolution and history of the universe and of humankind This long-range perspective makes you grateful and more generous.

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Ask Your Elders While There’s Still Time: Six Great Questions http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/10/ask-your-elders-while-theres-still-time-six-great-questions-2/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/03/10/ask-your-elders-while-theres-still-time-six-great-questions-2/#comments Mon, 10 Mar 2014 17:40:59 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=2677 This year, I lost two important elders in my life. Ruth was my undergraduate mentor – a professor who took meNEWS  under her wing many years ago and brought me into the field of gerontology. Helene came back to my university 20 years ago, got her degree in her early 70s, and worked with me as a research assistant into her 80s. She remained a trusted friend and advisor. Both of these remarkable women passed away this year, leaving us with wonderful memories.

But in each case, they left us with something more: a statement of their lessons for living. And that’s because I interviewed both of them for the Legacy Project. Their friends and families now have a record of the advice they offered to younger people for living a happier and more fulfilling life, learned over their long lives (87 and 89, respectively).

In this post, I urge you to do the same – before it’s too late.

One goal of the Legacy Project is to encourage people to talk with elders – older family members, friends, neighbors -  about their lessons for living. But people wonder about the kinds of questions we used to get elders talking about their advice for younger people. We’ve got an answer – and now is as good time as any to ask your family’s elders (or your older friends) about there lessons!

After interviewing hundreds of older people about their advice for younger generations, we were able to identify questions that work well to get the conversation started. These six questions were particularly thought-provoking for our respondents and brought a wide range of interesting answers.

1. If a young person asked you, “What have you learned in your ____ years in this world,” what would you tell him or her?

2. 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 an example?

3. As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed the course of your life or set you on a different track?

4. What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?

5. What can younger people do to avoid having regrets later in life?

6. What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

And after you’ve talked with your elder – don’t forget to post some lessons on our “Share Your Lessons” page!

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We All Want to Stay Positive: But How Should We Do It? http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/02/26/staying-positive-a-good-idea-but-how-do-we-do-it/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/02/26/staying-positive-a-good-idea-but-how-do-we-do-it/#comments Wed, 26 Feb 2014 09:59:23 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=1418 What makes us happy? There’s so much interest in this topic that a veritable mountain of positive-attidtuebooks 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.”

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Love Advice from the Elders: Our Valentine’s Day Gift to You! http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/02/13/10-tips-for-a-great-relationships-just-in-time-for-valentines-day/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/02/13/10-tips-for-a-great-relationships-just-in-time-for-valentines-day/#comments Thu, 13 Feb 2014 09:55:21 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=2337 In the Legacy Project, we interviewed the oldest Americans about their advice for living (which led to 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans). We’re now asking hundreds of people married for 40, h50, 60 and more years about “trade secrets” for love and marriage. Here are ten tips to consider this Valentine’s Day.

1. Choose carefully. Marriage is perhaps the biggest decision any of us make. The elder view: many people are simply not careful enough. Don’t fall or drift into marriage without waiting until you know one another and you understand your reasons for getting married. Avoid making a commitment based on passion, panic at being left single, or inertia.

2. Keep an eye out for anger. The elders had trouble saying exactly what you should look for in a possible mate, but they are crystal clear on what to avoid: Someone with bursts of unreasonable and disproportionate anger, even if it’s not directed toward you. Many elders whose relationships failed say that they ignored a partner’s uncontrollable anger toward others, only to find it directed toward them later on.

3. Friendship is as important as romantic love. Most of the elders recommend that you marry someone who is also your good friend, who you enjoy being with. As one elder put it: “Your mate should be that kid you would have most wanted to play with on the playground in grade school!”

4. Don’t keep score. Marriage is a give and take proposition and sometimes circumstances will call for one partner to give more than the other. Happy couples don’t expect the give and take to balance out every day (or month, or year), but understand that at times you may be giving 90% and receiving 10% back, and other times your partner is in that role.

5. Talk to each other. Communication is absolutely the key to keeping a marriage on the right track. The elders say that the “strong silent type” may be attractive and mysterious, but if he or she stays clammed up about important issues, the relationship is probably doomed.

6. Be polite. In long marriages, people have learned the value of simple civility. They point out that we often talk to our spouses in ways we’d never talk to friends or co-workers: dismissively, insultingly, or disrespectfully. Simple politeness in spousal interaction, they say, can prevent many a spat or tiff.

7. Don’t just commit to your partner, commit to marriage itself. The elders confirm that all marriages go through tough times, but they stayed together through them because they took a vow and they respected the institution of marriage. This commitment forced them to work things out and come out better on the other side.

8. Find a partner who is a lot like you. Although we often say that opposites attract, over time fundamental differences can wear on a marriage. The elders say that you can have differences in backgrounds, but truly necessary are shared values. Check early on if your values on core issues (think money, sex, kids, religion, and work) are closely aligned.

9. They won’t change (much). What about taking a leap of faith and assuming you can change your partner after you are married? Many people do just that, and the elders basically think those people are idiots. Elder wisdom says that getting into a marriage with the goal of changing one’s partner is a fool’s errand, one that will doom the relationship before it really gets started. So if she’s always late or if he drinks a little too much, be sure you can accept it for a lifetime.

10. Don’t go to bed angry. It may be the biggest cliché around, but long-married people swear by it. Arguments should not be carried into the intimate space of the bed, and they are much more hurtful if they roll over to another day. Wrap it up, agree to disagree, or decide on another time to fight again. And even if anger is still there, they suggest you make some caring gesture before going to sleep that conveys: “I may not like you much right now, but I still love you.”

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Pearls of Elder Wisdom to Help You Get Through the Day http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/01/26/pearls-of-elder-wisdom-to-help-you-get-through-the-day/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/01/26/pearls-of-elder-wisdom-to-help-you-get-through-the-day/#comments Mon, 27 Jan 2014 00:57:00 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=2650 I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six years interviewing the oldest Americans about their lessons for living – advice they pearlswould like to pass on to future generations. As described in the book 30 Lessons for Livingthe elders have outstanding advice on the “big picture” issues: love and marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, health and of course, aging well.

Sometimes, however, I have had an epiphany from hearing a brief thought or phrase from the elders. When confronted with a work problem, a stressful event, or just the usual tension that can build up during the day, I find that the voice of one or another of the elders will come to me and help me re-think the situation. I’ve come to call these my “elder mantras.”

Here are a few of these “mantras” that I find particularly helpful, all from wise people in their 80s and beyond. They reflect some of the core elements of elder wisdom.

Swimming in the sea of life

Paul, 85, had a successful and high-powered career as an architect. After both a hectic career and personal life, he has found old age to be a time of both clarity and serenity. When asked: “What have you learned during your life that you would like to pass on to a younger person,” he said:

“I’ve learned how to swim. ”

That was a surprise, and when questioned, Paul went on:

I’ve learned how to swim. In life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.

This image of learning to swim in the river of life, of going with the flow of living, is a powerful and serene image when called up during a busy day.

Let it be

This mantra comes from Sister Clare Moran, whom I interviewed shortly before her 100th birthday. (I can’t give all the details here, but believe me when I say: If you want to hear about an interesting life, sit down for a while with a 100-year old nun!)

Reflecting on her nearly 80 years in the religious life, Sister Clare pointed to doing away with worry as her lesson for younger people. Early in her career as a nun, she learned a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, a youngish priest, very fragile and frail. Beautiful, beautiful man. He said that at a certain time of his life, something happened; he didn’t tell us what it was. I heard that he had been working on a mission and they asked him to come back to the States and it broke his heart. It must have been a very hard thing to do. And he was very angry, he just couldn’t be resigned, just couldn’t. He got back into work here, but he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and he talked to him about it. He said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this young man was saying it just the way the priest said it and he said, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

Sr. Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind, now 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. So I started doing that, I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well now she shouldn’t do that, I should tell her that…” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

A feather from an angel’s wing

Flora, 80, is a poet who writes about her love of the landscapes of the Southwest. Her approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day can hold, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit. One phrase stands out as a mantra.

If I were to give any particular word of advice I would say: Go about the business of the day, hum-drum as it might be, but walk on your tip-toes waiting for the “ah-ha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal everyday things. So be prepared for those ah-ha experiences that may happen any time. That way, you’re always open to and watching for something different — watching for a feather from an angel wing.

It’s sorry you didn’t do…

One last mantra I carry with me is from Eleanor, who says about regrets: “Mostly it’s sorry you didn’t do than sorry you did!”

You can meet her (on video) as well as other elders sharing their wisdom.

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Money Advice from the Wisest Americans http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/01/14/money-advice-from-the-wisest-americans/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2014/01/14/money-advice-from-the-wisest-americans/#comments Tue, 14 Jan 2014 12:03:35 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=2645 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.

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Different New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2013/12/31/how-about-some-new-years-resolutions-you-might-actually-keep/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2013/12/31/how-about-some-new-years-resolutions-you-might-actually-keep/#comments Tue, 31 Dec 2013 11:44:42 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=1384 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!

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Give the Gift of Elder Wisdom this Year (It Never Wears Out!) http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2013/12/19/30-lessons-for-living-readers-react-2/ http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/2013/12/19/30-lessons-for-living-readers-react-2/#comments Thu, 19 Dec 2013 09:56:28 +0000 http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/?p=2591 Looking for a more meaningful gift this year? What about practical advice from the wisest Americans?

One of my local heroes (yes, she lives near me) is the advice columnist Amy Dickinson (otherwise known as Ask Amy). She has come up with a great idea: That everyone on Christmas morning should get a special gift: A book placed on the end of their bed for when they wake up in the morning. Amy’s point is one of the best presents we can give still comes in the form of an old-fashioned book.

At the Legacy Project, we hope you might consider giving the special gift of elder wisdom this year. 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans offers the advice of over 1000 elders on topics like marriage, work, child-rearing, and growing older. Reviewers have praised it, like Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People), who wrote: “I can’t imagine anyone whose life will not be enriched by this book.” And it’s made it to lists of top gift books.

Christmas is a time when many of us see our older relatives and most of us think back to those  with whom we celebrated the holiday in the past. The goal of 30 Lessons for Living was to make sure their wisdom is not lost, and to pass it on to generations to come.

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