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.
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.
We are so lucky at the Legacy Project to have wonderful student interns who join us to learn about aging issues, and elder wisdom in particular. We ask them to profile lessons from an elder they interview. Emily Hoyt is a junior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, majoring in Human Development. Here’s what she learned from Jeanie.
Jeanie, age 90, has lived and continues to live an incredible life. Born in 1927, Jeanie overcame adversity to become a successful career woman. According to Jeanie, “you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher; that was about it.” Jeanie broke out of these traditional roles by going back to school in her thirties to complete her undergraduate degree and receive a graduate degree in Art History. She noted:
If I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t be where I am now.. One of the reasons I made it was because I had a group of friends, our husbands were successful, and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing. One of them said ‘You know when you get between 35 and 45 you either just gel and become frozen into what you are, or you really develop,’ and I thought, “Oh my God!”
Inspired to go back to school, Jeanie pursued her dream of completing an arts education. Because careers in art are hard to come by, Jeanie found the collegiate atmosphere “backbiting and competitive.” This pressure, however, taught Jeanie “how to handle [her]self and handle other people.” A great life skill for anyone in any field of study.
Jeanie told me that going back to school “absolutely was a life changer.” Her advice to girls today? Take advantage of every opportunity you are given. According to Jeanie, “the horizon [for girls] is so much greater now.” She advises girls to capitalize on the groundwork laid by previous generations of women.
After a successful 25-year career as a museum curator, Jeanie has learned a thing or two about working life. The saying “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life” rings true for Jeanie. In fact, Jeanie felt “guilty about being paid for her job.” The intrinsic benefits she received from her job were payment enough.
Jeanie serves as an example for girls everywhere of breaking barriers and further progress for women. As women, it is our job to continue down the path that Jeanie has paved for us. We must jump at opportunities and continue to chip away at the glass ceiling until it shatters.
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.
There’s a theme that struck me in talking with elders about the families they grew up in. Of all the things that left an unhappy feeling about their childhoods, parental favortism was right up at the top. I had respondents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties tear up about memories of being the unfavored child.
Christine, 77, was the middle child, with one brother and one sister. When asked about lessons she learned from her childhood, she emphasized the dangers of favoritism.
I would say my family was dysfunctional, as most of them are, I suppose. I don’t look back a great deal on my childhood because it was what it was, and I accepted it, and I don’t have any excuses for my own life because of my childhood. I don’t really think that’s a great thing to do. Life progresses, and everybody has their own issues with growing up, and you have to get past that. But I think being a middle child, it was difficult.
My brother went in the service because he got in some trouble and that was the way out. You know what I mean? And my younger sister was always favored very much so in the whole family, especially by my dad. I think it bothered my mother tremendously.
The unequal treatment had lifelong repercussions for Christine:
I think the hardest think in life, for me, is relationships with people. I think because we’re all so very different and I think that’s one thing that I was not taught was that we are different and especially in my immediate family, with my sister. And I think we were never taught to believe that we were different people, and that we had to accept each other’s differences. And therefore it caused an awful lot of friction in our lives.
That experience taught me a great deal in accepting people the way they are. Not to say that I can always do that, because as I said, that’s the hardest thing in the world to do for me. But like I say, I got through that through the grace of God.
The message I took home from stories like this is: Be very aware about showing favoritism to children. If kids are treated very differently, it’s not something they easily forget – even after seventy or more years.
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 2018. 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!
Well, I kind of regret some decisions because I wanted to have a certain skill and I didn’t pursue it and I really regret it and that’s what I’d like to say to young people: If they’ve got an idea, for example, if they want to be a veterinarian, they should do it and not put it off and be sorry when they’re older that they didn’t.
That’s what happened to me, and that’s something that they can learn from older people: Don’t wait because you only have one life. If you mess it up when you’re young, then it might be too late when you get older or maybe you just don’t feel like it or you might have some kind of health problems or something and you just can’t do it. But I think young people are more energetic and they should pursue what they’re going to do when they’re young, not wait, that’s what I learned.
In my surveys of over 1500 of the oldest Americans for the book 30 Lessons for Living, one thing stands out. Although many of these elders have serious burdens of chronic disease, family problems, or economic difficulties, getting older has bestowed a special gift – gratefulness.
They told us they are especially thankful for small, pleasant things: a favorite song on the radio, the antics of a beloved dog, a brightly colored bird on the lawn in spring, the morning cup of coffee, being in a warm bed on a snowy night.
If you need help developing a spirit of gratefulness this Thanksgiving, let me share with you what the elders told us. First, here are three quick thoughts to keep in mind this season:
Be grateful for every day you have. I’m serious about that. Just be grateful of every day you have and enjoy. (Purnima, 81)
It’s an everyday thing, because I like to be thankful, I like to be thankful for what I have and my good health. And the blessings that the Lord gives us from day to day we should be thankful for. And another thing is to try to live your life daily, one day at a time. Look ahead but still make the most of each day. (Tanya, 79)
Take time to replenish yourself – sleep, quiet time, music, reading, enjoying nature. It’s difficult to keep going when you are running on empty. Be grateful in your everyday life for the small stuff. (Rudy, 84)
And in the wonderful spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to share with you the thoughts of one of the wisest elders in the Legacy Project. Pass it on to your loved ones on this special day!
Jane, 90, did not always have an easy path along life’s journey. But as she looks back on her sometimes challenging experiences, she
learned one critically important lesson for living: How to be grateful for all that life offers.
My parent’s’ divorce when I was thirteen was ugly and acrimonious, and my mother, sister, and I suffered severe financial hardship.
My school life was important to me and I was disappointed that I was unable to go on to college. World War II affected and changed everyone’s life. We truly thought it was to be the war to end all wars. What a bitter lesson that was. I was emotionally and financially unequipped for the grief and difficulties that followed my husband’s death in 1952. When I look back now, I wonder how we survived.
But my later years have been much easier because I learned to be grateful for what I have, and no longer bemoan what I don’t have or can’t do. Saying “thank you” reminds me of my blessings, which are many. When I look back over my life, the most important things I have learned are these.
My small and modest home gives me a feeling of comfort and security.
Being self-reliant and able to care for myself has been part of my mother’s heritage to me. She didn’t give up when life was difficult and I try not to either. Grief, sorrow, and disappointment are difficult to endure, but in time I realized that there usually was a lesson to be learned and memory has allowed me to remember a person loved who is now gone.
Mother taught me not to cry over “spilt milk”:; Iif you make a mess, clean it up.; Iif you break it, fix it.; Aand if you make a mistake, correct it. She also taught me to keep my word, to be dependable, not to rob others of their time by being late, and to promptly return what I borrow. The world would be a better place if we all learned to value each other, to respect each other’s privacy and differences, and, most importantly, not be judgmental.
We are each responsible for our own well-being, and we need to care for ourselves, not only physical health but also mental and emotional well- being. Worrying never solved a problem and only robs you of your peace of mind.
Life isn’t fair. I believe it is important to have arms outstretched, one hand up—, holding one hand up to the person who is giving a you a lift up— and one hand down, giving some else a helping hand up.
This too will pass, whether it is joy or sorrow. So live each moment of every day. Some days will be passed by putting one foot in front of the other to get through, but others will be filled with joy, every moment worth celebrating.
I have had to live simply but eventually I realized that it is the best way for me to live. That to know what is enough, not to use more than my share of the earth’s resources, to recognize the difference between wants and needs, to enjoy the pleasure of making something broken of use again, and learning to appreciate simple pleasures has made my life more satisfying and less worrisome.
Happiness does not depend on how much we have but is based on personal success of skills and artistry, a sense of humor, the acquisition of knowledge, the refinement of character, the expression of gratitude, the satisfaction of helping others, the pleasure of friends, the comfort of family, and the joy of love.
We hope you enjoyed her list of things for which she is grateful, and we encourage you to make a list of your own!
Maureen, 93, wrote:
1) Never judge a book by its cover. In other words, don’t judge people by their looks.
2) Keep confidences told you by other people. Don’t tell stories which are to be kept “only for your ears”.
3) Do not borrow money or valuables from friends. Banks are the place to go if borrowing is necessary.
4) You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Compliment others when they deserve if. They’ll thrive.
5) Avoid solving personal problems for others. If you do, they may backfire.
6) Be a listener. Some people need you simply to listen to them.
7) Keep your physical ills between you and your doctor.
8 ) Keep your political ideas between you and the ballot box.
9) Money can be the roof of all evil but it doesn’t have to be that. Become investor and consumer oriented.
10) Although one has lived a long time, that person must take steps not to become a bore. Criticism of the younger folks gets one nowhere!
Charles, 83, told me about growing older and how to do it gracefully..His advice is that we must learn to adapt. To make that point, he offered a profound metaphor for how we should approach aging: learning to swim.
I think when one is 20, one probably doesn’t realize how important the ability to adapt is to your happiness. So that people who cannot grow and change are sort of stuck with their own personalities. We need insight, which is something that has to be either consciously or unconsciously sought after. One sees people who don’t seem to have the insights they need to be happy.
You asked me what I’ve learned growing older. I’d put it this way. I’ve learned how to swim. Not in water; 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.