What life lessons can we learn from the people who have lived the longest?
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed 1200 people age 70 to 100+ for his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans” asking them:
“If you look back over the course of your life, what are the most important lessons you learned that you would like to share with younger people?”
Karl and I talked about older people’s advice on happiness, career, regrets and the most important life lessons to keep in mind as you age.
My conversation with Karl was nearly an hour long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
The Single Most Important Lesson Older People Think Young People Need To Know
I would say lesson number one, endorsed by almost all of these 1,200 people, and one in which people tended to be rather vehement, is “Life is short.” Or life is really short, or life is really, really short. Or as one ex-engineer said, “It passes by in a nanosecond.”
The older the person was, the centenarians were probably the most likely to say, “I can’t believe how quickly life passed.” One direct quote that I love, one woman, who was 99, said to me, “I don’t know what happened, because the next thing you know, you’re 100.”
They want to pound this awareness into young people, not to depress them, but to encourage them to make better choices. In the field of gerontology, there is a whole theory called “socioemotional selectivity theory.” What they argue is that the one thing that makes people different at 70 and beyond, from younger people, developmentally, is a sense of limited time horizon. You become really aware that your days are numbered. Rather than that being so depressing, people start to make better choices. That’s really what I’ve found. People argue, for example, that based on their sense of life of being short, how these young people should value their experiences and people over things.
Some of their lessons which emanate from this “life is short” perspective are reasonably obvious. They argue that you should savor small, daily experiences and make the most of every day. They argue that some people should travel more. This was extremely important to them, because in many cases the older American’s younger lives were extremely local, sometimes not even leaving the county they grew up in until World War II, in the case of men.
What I consistently heard was that you can choose to be happy on a day-to-day basis, despite external circumstances.
A lot of them think of young people as believing that you can be happy if only something occurs: if only they lose weight, gain weight, find a partner, lose a partner, get new job, get a different job, etc. They argue that once you hit 70, if you can’t learn to be happy in spite of bad things happening to you, you aren’t going to be happy for those 20 or 30 years. Almost everybody learned at some point in their life, that happiness is more of a choice than it is a condition. The reason why that’s not just a cliche to these folks is that they’ve been through all the stuff, especially in their 80’s and 90’s, that keeps young people awake at night. They know what they’re talking about. Almost everybody can point to a moment, or a day, or a week where they were feeling miserable about something, and they changed their attitude rather than the circumstance.
Those are really two of the most fundamental lessons, that happiness is a choice, not a condition and you take responsibility for happiness.
How Much Did The Advice Vary?
Did African-Americans differ from white, did immigrants differ, or even did men and women differ? The lessons themselves were often identical. How people got there was dramatically different. Many people said find work you love, but when I interviewed one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the way he defined work he loved was battling unbelievable discrimination. That seems fairly incomprehensible today. The way he got there was different, but his lessons were very similar.
I think it’s really interesting that there were differences in how they answered the questions, but almost no differences in the kinds of lessons they emphasized in each area. With this new book on marriage, what we’re finding is essentially, exactly the same thing. For example, we’re interviewing, also, people in long term same-sex couples, who were, in some cases, just able to get married. The responses of gay couples about their advice for marriage, if you took out the references to gender, they are virtually identical to what married couples say. There were findings on this that there aren’t a lot of individual differences by different types of people in the kinds of lessons you come up with over 80, 90, or 100 years of living. There does seem to be something in common that people draw from life experience.
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I expected that these members of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation,’ when you ask them about work and career, I thought they would say, “Go out and get the safest and highest-paying job you can get, and stick with it, because life is uncertain, the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time, so find yourself a high-paying, safe job and stay in it.” 100%, or as close to unanimous as anything in this project, said the exact opposite.
Over and over people said, “Choose work for its intrinsic rewards, choose it for its sense of purpose, choose it because you love it. Not for the financial rewards primarily.” They don’t want anybody to be a starving artist, they think you should be comfortable, but they cringe at the kinds of things I hear my students say, “I’d really love to be a chef, but I’m going to go into the financial industry for ten years and make money first.” Their argument, which is based on this notion of how short life is, is that you will later on view it as not having been worth it. We think of old people as hide-bound, or not risk takers. I can’t tell you how many people said — and got worked up about it — “Don’t get stuck in a box, do it now, life is short so find work you love. If you have to get up in the morning and go to work in the morning to a job you hate, it’s time to get out.”
If you want the extended interview (where Karl discusses what the happiest older people had in common, as well as their biggest regret) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
More about Karl’s research into life lessons: