A piece in the Harvard Gazette covers what Karl Pillemer of Cornell University learned from studying nearly 1500 people age 70 to 100+ for his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”
What insights did he come away with?
1) Remember that life is short.
His research began with a simple question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over your life?” Respondents included homemakers, entrepreneurs, and even a former Tuskegee airman, and their answers touched on topics like marriage, children, money, work, aging, and health. One unanimous refrain included just three simple words: Life is short.
2) For career? Do what you enjoy.
Though many survey participants had lived through hard economic times, instead of urging younger people to get steady, well-paying jobs, they consistently said, “Do something you enjoy.” “Based on this extremely acute awareness of the shortness of life, everybody argued you should find work you love; work ought to be chosen for its intrinsic value, and for its sense of enjoyment, sense of purpose. And life was much too short to spend doing something you don’t like, even for a few years.”
3) Healthy living? “Treat your body like you’re going to need it for 100 years.” With modern technology, unhealthy living doesn’t mean you die sooner, it means reduced quality of life when you’re older.
Instead of offering advice like “eat your vegetables,” “go to bed early,” or “don’t smoke,” participants in the survey consistently responded, when asked about their health: “Treat your body like you are going to need it for 100 years.” …The elderly, he added, understand that modern medical technology means people with unhealthy lifestyles are “sentencing themselves to 20 or 30 or 40 years of chronic illness.”
4) Biggest regret? Pointless worrying.
Similarly, respondents surprised Pillemer when he asked them to name their biggest regrets. Instead of listing concerns like affairs, addictions, or shady business dealings, almost unanimously they answered: “I wish I had not spent so much time worrying.”
5) Happiness? Don’t make your happiness contingent. Be happy in spite of bad times.
Another standout lesson from the survey involved the notion of being responsible for one’s own happiness. While it sounds like a cliché, said Pillemer, “It’s a critical part of their lived reality, and their argument is as follows: Younger people tend to be happy ‘if only’. … Their view from later life is that this has to morph into being happy in spite of things.”
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