30 Life Lessons From 1,000 Older Americans
Back in April, I blogged about 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, which turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2012.
Cornell human ecology professor Karl Pillemer spent five years interviewing more than one thousand Americans older than 65. Then he distilled their wisdom into lessons on careers, marriage, parenting, and other topics. What’s remarkable to me isn’t just the surface wisdom of their advice, but how much what they recommend comports with what social scientists have discovered in the last 20 years about human flourishing.
1. Why do people tend to act on these principles so infrequently if elders, social, science, and our guts tell us they’re true?
Research shows it is very difficult for younger people to take the long view when they are submerged in the flow of work and family life. In my book I refer to the “middle-aged blur,” in which 20 or more years appear to pass in an instant. Younger people often focus on short-term gain without looking at long-term consequences. This is why I believe listening to the oldest Americans is so important – we can learn to adopt a long-term view by listening to people who have lived their lives.
2. As someone who admittedly suffers from “middle-aged blur,” I wonder if there’s a way to grasp these lessons sooner rather than later in life? Or is coming to these conclusions on one’s own simply part of the aging process and part of being human?
The best way is simply this: listen to older people and ask their advice. Our elders are excellent at conveying this practical wisdom very convincingly. We find that younger people exposed to the key insights of older Americans do indeed change their behaviors. They do things like seek work for its intrinsic rewards rather than external ones; create a focus on rewards from people and experiences over things; and develop a more savoring and grateful approach to daily experience
3. Who among us does not have a grandparent who claims they walked five miles to school and back every day — all of it uphill? But judging from your interviews, the generation of people you talked to actually did endure a lot of hardships that more affluent generations don’t see today. Is suffering the key to their wisdom, and if so, should we seek it out?
The elders do not suggest that we go about looking for opportunities to suffer; rather, they suggest that many experiences that involve great difficulty also provide irreplacable opportunities for learning. So they would recommend seeking challenging experiences and facing them with courage and resolve. It is precisely these situations that lead to what we call wisdom.
4. You write that elders’ wisdom often “upends contemporary conventional wisdom….it is in this challenge…that the true value of their wisdom lies.” That seems paradoxical — we usually think of seniors as being almost painfully conventional, and of young people as being the radicals. How do you explain this?
Actually, research shows that people do not necessarily become more conservative or set in their ways as they get older. The biggest surprise for me in our interviews was instead how much America’s elders endorse risk. Looking back, they want to convey a message to younger people that is summed up in a quote in our study from an 87-year old: “Don’t waste your life – it’s too precious.” Similarly, an 89 – year old told me “Life is short and you have to cram as much into it as you possibly can. It’s ‘sorry you didn’t rather than sorry you did’ – am I right?” Over and over, they assert, sometimes vehemently, that younger people should “say yes,” embrace risk, and beware of living life “in a box.” They say this especially regarding your career; as a former entrepreneur told me, “Unless you have a compelling reason to say no at work, you should always say yes.”
5. The social trend for the past few decades, particularly in the West, has been away from multi-generational living. Can you imagine any force or circumstances that would reverse this trend?
We must do all we can to reverse this trend. There are many intergenerational programs that bring younger and older people together. All of us need to make more of an effort to reach out to older people and bring them back into the mainstream of life. One great place to intervene in this trend is the media. One study found that only 2 percent of prime time TV characters are identifiably over 65, and most of those are portrayed negatively (think Grandpa Simpson). The absence of positive images of aging in the media promotes prejudice and age segregation, so there is a good place to start changing attitudes.
6. If you don’t mind offering some advice of your own, could you tell our readers what one thing they could do today either to impart the wisdom of their age, or imbibe the wisdom of their elders?
It may not sound like a profound change, but there is one thing almost anyone can do. Specifically, a first step in breaking down the age barriers is to talk with one another. I strongly recommend that everyone spend some time asking older people in your social network the kinds of questions that were asked of the elders in the Legacy Project. Placing older friends and relatives in the role of advice-giver is empowering for them, and enlightening for younger people. So the best action is in fact pretty simple. The wisdom of our elders is readily available to us. All we have to do is ask.