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.
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.
Life Lessons About Happiness
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 a 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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Life Lessons About Career
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.”
What Did The Happiest Older People Have In Common?
The people who struck me as the happiest often emphasized the power of emotional intelligence. People who place a high value on developing, honing, creating and perfecting interpersonal skills in every domain, and especially work, do better. There’s a connection between people who look back on their life happily and people who had the ‘people over things’ mentality.
Also, people who were very happy in later life would often have principles like believing that once you get beyond being comfortable in life, spending more time just to make more money is a waste of time. Like, “I know it’s important to have your kids achieve, but really, my goal is to have good relationships with them.” Once you get out of the work force and into later life, you really want to be surrounded by people who like you, and to feel like you’ve treated people well. So I would say that, unscientifically, it feels to me like it was correlated with happiness.
What Do Older People Regret Most?
I would say that some other examples of counter-intuitive lessons had to do, for example, with regrets. For example, if you look at regret, I expected that the biggest regrets of the oldest Americans would be big-ticket items. An affair, shady business deal, some act of enormous dishonesty. Instead, one of the top worries, I had to hear it a bunch of times before I understood it, is, ‘I wish I hadn’t worried so much.’
At the top of the list almost, for the oldest for people you can talk to, is what they –really– regret, and saw as an incredible waste of time was having spent time worrying about things they couldn’t control. I really hadn’t expected that. That actually had a major effect on me, because I tend to be a worrier. I now stop myself all the time, knowing that at age 90 almost everybody says, ‘If I could have all the time back I spent worrying about things that never happened, I would really do almost anything.’ The best way to convey that, is a quote from one person in particular, ‘There were going to be layoffs in my company. In three months, a bunch of people were going to be laid off. I did nothing other than worry about that for three months. I poisoned my life, I didn’t enjoy anything, I worried constantly even though I had no control over it.’ She paused and said, ‘I wish I had those three months back.’
That’s really their view. In the end of life, all the time you spent in this mindless rumination is time that you will feel was wasted. That’s not what I would have predicted as a lesson when I started this project. It’s something that never would have occurred to me, that the oldest people would really exhort young people to live in the moment and don’t worry so much. I thought they had plenty to worry about. These are people who lost everything in the Great Depression, often grew up in abject poverty, had bad jobs that make our bad jobs look like good ones, and yet their biggest regret is having worried too much.
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