What can we learn from those near the end of their lives about living today?
Karl Pillemer wrote 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans to provide us with practical advice about how to make the most out of life. (Complement with this interview. )
A self-described “advice junkie,” Pillemer wanted answers to some of life’s more complicated questions. What practical advice can we learn from those approaching the end of their life?
“Could we,” he asks, “look at the oldest Americans as experts on how to live our lives?”
I went on a quest for wisdom. I didn’t search in the usual way, by traveling the world, finding a therapist, or taking up an esoteric religious practice. To find practical guidance for living, my answer was to search for the life wisdom of older people.
And when you put together well over a thousand older people, who have lived “rich and fulfilling lives,” you have a source of unique guidance and a trove of wisdom.
Their unique perspective provides a much-needed antidote to conventional wisdom about the “good life” in contemporary American society.
So what did they have to say?
Happiness is Your Responsibility
“Young man,” she said “you will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. Why in the world would I be unhappy? People here complain all the time, but not me. It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, right here, today.”
The Single Most Important Component of a Long and Satisfying Marriage
No matter their socioeconomic background, their religious heritage, their race or ethnicity, or their political leanings, they agree: finding someone who is similar in upbringing, general orientation, and values is the single most important component of a long and satisfying marriage. On the other hand, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers, and understanding and appreciation of differences. Is there a conflict here?
The message to take away from this lesson allows for both perspectives. The experts (like the social scientists) don’t tell you unconditionally not to marry someone who is different from you but with whom you are deeply in love. They simply want everyone to recognize that if we marry people very dissimilar to ourselves, and in particular with divergent values, we are much more likely to face complex challenges in married life.
When you wake up in the morning ask what you can do for your partner
Neither one of us is waking up in the morning and saying, “Am I getting what I need out of this?” Instead we’re waking up saying, “What can I do for him?” or “What can I do for her?” …
When you wake up in the morning, think, “What can I do to make her day or his day just a little happier?”
Don’t Keep Score
Don’t keep score. Don’t take the attitude that marriage must always be a fifty-fifty proposition; you can’t get out exactly what you put in. The key to success is having both partners try to give more than they get out of the relationship.
What They Didn’t Say
One of the most striking points is what the thousand-plus experts didn’t say.
No one— not a single person out of a thousand— said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.
No one— not a single person— said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.
No one— not a single person— said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.
Develop Interpersonal Skills
Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant— you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.
Everyone Needs Autonomy
Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.
America’s elders tell you that what you will regret at their age is not having spent more time with your children. … The experts who missed out on spending time with their children regret it, and those who creatively manufactured time together regard it as the best decision they ever made.
Memories That Last
First, it’s your time that kids want, and they will look back on the hours you spend together with fondness and nostalgia. The experts remember this from their own families— indeed it is the source of most of their pleasant memories about childhood. Second, what counts the most are shared activities— time spent on hobbies, sports, camping, hunting, or fishing (it’s extraordinary how many of the male experts cherish memories of hunting or fishing trips with their fathers) or in seeking out a new interest together. Third, the experts agree that we should be willing to make sacrifices to have that kind of time.
About Getting Older
The experts’ basic message about aging is one of the most counterintuitive recommendations in this entire book: don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.