Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist at Cornell University, where he has long studied the social processes of aging – including tough issues like elder abuse and negligent nursing home care. But an overwhelming lesson he learned from working with elderly people was that they are a tremendous storehouse of knowledge.
So many younger and middle-aged people want to know how to be happy and how to reach the end of life without regrets, he thought – why not ask the experts: people who have actually reached their 70s, 80s, or 90s and have learned a thing or two along the way.
Since 2004, he and his research team have collected “practical advice for living” from 1500 elders by asking the question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?” The team began a blog to share the insights with the world, and now there’s a book: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.
The elders’ advice ranges from “how to be happy on a day-to-day basis, the secrets to a successful marriage, tips on raising children, ways to have a fulfilling career, strategies fordealing with illness and loss, and how to grow old fearlessly and well,” Dr. Pillemer writes. The blog can be sorted by category, so you or your students can look up advice on “Love and Marriage,” “How to be Happy,” or “Worry and Stress,” for example.
A review of the book in the New York Times summarized a few of the elders’ salient points:
ON CAREERS Not one person in a thousand said that happiness accrued from working as hard as you can to make money to buy whatever you want. Rather, the near-universal view was summed up by an 83-year-old former athlete who worked for decades as an athletic coach and recruiter: “The most important thing is to be involved in a profession that you absolutely love, and that you look forward to going to work to every day.”
ON REGRETS “Always be honest” was the elders’ advice to avoid late-in-liferemorse. Take advantage of opportunities and embrace new challenges. And travel more when you’re young rather than wait until the children are grown or you are retired.
We heard versions of advice like this before, but there is real poignancy and impact in hearing it directly from the mouths and minds of people who have earned their insights the hard way, are looking back on many decades of experience, and who are keenly aware that of the approaching end of their lives.
Website and blog: The Legacy Project: Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans
New book on Amazon.com: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans
Watch Dr. Pillemer explain the project here: