30 LESSONS FOR LIVING:
TRIED AND TRUE ADVICE FROM THE WISEST AMERICANS

Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Who Are the Wisest Americans and What Can They Tell Us?

finding the right mate and staying happily married for your whole life. Raising children who turn out well and enjoy your company. Discovering work you love. Growing older gracefully and without anxiety. Avoiding major regrets. Reaching the end of life with a sense of completion and fulfillment. This may sound like a wonderful prescription for a life well lived. But where can we find the guidance we need to accomplish these goals in our lives?

If you picked up this book because the title caught your eye, you've probably asked yourself that question. And my goal in writing it has been to provide you with concrete, practical advice about how to make the most of your life in precisely those ways. But first I need to let you know who these "wisest Americans" are and what kind of a guide this is. As you will see, it's different from any kind of advice book you've read before. That's because it taps a unique source that has been around for millennia but is almost forgotten in contemporary society.

Americans seek advice with an appetite that seems to be insatiable. We watch televised "experts" in the hope of finding solutions to interpersonal problems, financial woes, and sexual dysfunction. We read advice columns and go to seminars. We consult self-improvement websites. And we buy books. There are more than thirty thousand self-help titles in print in the United States today, and it's estimated that Americans will spend close to one billion dollars buying them this year.

Let me make a confession: I am something of an advice junkie myself. I am the kind of person who goes directly to the self-help aisle in the mega-bookstore. For almost every topic I am interested in, you will find a relevant advice volume in my bookcase. My family has learned to ignore my reading aloud from the daily paper the latest tips on getting organized, reducing stress, investing for retirement, or whatever the problem of the day happens to be. I know I'm not alone in these activities--it seems like almost everyone is looking for answers to life's complex questions.

And yet as I observed all this searching, I felt something was missing. What credentials do the supposed gurus to the good life have? What entitles them to special authority when it comes to solving life's problems? And why, if we have so many professional advice givers, are so many people still so unhappy? The overflowing feast of advice seems to have left a lot of people pushing back from the table hungry.

Philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders point toward the underlying discontent many Americans feel about the ways their lives are turning out. We live in the midst of plenty but always seem to want more. We feel that we do not have enough time, and yet we waste the precious time we have on video games, text messaging, reading about the lives of talentless celebrities, or earning more money to buy things we don't need. We always seem to be worrying--about our health, our children, our marriages, our jobs.

Where, I began to wonder, can we find advice that is based in lived reality, has stood the test of time, and offers a chance of genuinely helping us make the most of our lives? Six years ago, when I turned fifty, I realized that I deeply and urgently wanted an answer to that question. Turning fifty brings you into a new and interesting phase of life (at least it did for me). You still have one foot firmly placed in marriage, work, child rearing, and planning ambitiously for the future. But you also have a whiff of things to come. Your children are nearing adulthood and leaving home. You might have lost one or both parents. Your perfect health may be a bit less perfect.

But most important, you begin having a longer lifetime to look back on. And you find yourself knowing things. You see a twenty-three-year-old in the throes of romantic indecision, and you hear yourself saying: "I've been through that. Believe me, you'll feel better." You see two younger colleagues in a knock-down, drag-out battle over something trivial, and you say to a coworker your age: "Can you believe how worked up those guys are getting? What's the point?" For some experiences, the highs of success and the lows of failure aren't as high or low. There's a nascent sense of the long view, of individual events finding their place in a larger context. And maybe you start to feel a greater acceptance of others, a desire to slow down a bit, and an awareness of small pleasures in the present moment.

An idea began to percolate in my mind: maybe there is something about getting older that teaches you how to live better. A question dawned on me that gave birth to this project: Could we look at the oldest Americans as experts on how to live our lives? And could we tap that wisdom to help us make the most of our lifetimes?

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that this insight came as a surprise to me, because I have spent my career as a gerontologist: someone who studies people in life's "third age"--typically thought of as the period after age sixty-five. Over the past thirty years, I have conducted dozens of studies and published scientific articles on topics like the stress of taking care of parents with Alzheimer's disease, ways of helping elders deal with chronic pain and disability, and how to improve care in nursing homes. In my studies I have used rigorous methods, scientifically selected samples, and proven measures to try to understand the aging process. But I felt I was missing something nevertheless. Despite decades studying the problems of older people, I had a nagging suspicion that there was more they could tell me about how to live the good life.

Then one particular event pushed me firmly in a new direction and launched an effort that would occupy (some would say obsess) me for five years. It was a turning point, the importance of which I didn't realize immediately but which eventually led to 30 Lessons for Living.

My work often takes me into nursing homes. I don't know how much time you have spent in nursing homes, but you can take my word for it that they aren't the happiest places on the planet. Although most provide good care, they have an institutional feel that depresses the spirits as you pass through the front door. Both the residents and the staff know that entering the home is a one-way street; for almost everyone, the only exit is the end of life. Nursing homes look after the sickest and most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom have lost their loved ones, their ability to care for themselves, and sometimes even their memories and sense of self.

On this particular day, a nurse I was chatting with said, "Do you have a minute? I'd like you to meet June Driscoll. I hear you like to meet interesting older people"--which I do--"and I've got one for you."

The room was typically institutional, with two beds. June, sitting in an armchair next to the window, turned at the nurse's greeting. I could see that June was thin, her face framed by a halo of cottony white hair. Her skin had the waxy translucency one sometimes sees in the very old. I knew from the nurse that June was a "total care" resident, requiring assistance with every activity of daily living, including the most personal. "Her vision is going," the nurse told me, "so stand close so she can see you." After nearly ninety years, June's body was in the final process of failing her.

The nurse's greeting was conventional: "How are you doing today?" But the answer had a dramatic effect on me. "Just fine!" June replied in a surprisingly strong voice. "Fine day so far! I've had my bath, lunch was good, and I'm getting ready to watch my pro-gram." Without a pause, she went on to ask the nurse about her toddler at home who had been ill for the past few days. Reassured that he was fine, June turned her attention to me. I don't know how else to put it: she seemed to be having a very good time.

I was intensely curious about where a cheerful attitude like hers came from, near the end of life and despite a host of physical problems. Maybe it was something special in the moment, but before I had time to think I found myself actually asking her that question. And June didn't seem surprised at all. She nodded in a friendly way and told me: "Well, it's like this. I was raised in what you could call a shack, with a dirt floor and no indoor bathroom. I had six kids, and my husband was partially disabled and in and out of work. I worked hard every day of my life until I was bone tired. I've been through the Depression, when we barely had enough to eat. Now here I am, in a place where I have a roof over my head, three square meals a day, and very nice people who take care of me. There's a lot to do here. I wake up and the sun is shining in the window. I'm alive, after all. I can hear. I can still see okay."

June sat forward a little. "Young man," she said-and I am not ashamed to admit that it was gratifying to be called "young man" at my age-"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."

She repeated the last sentence, as if to make sure I understood the urgency of the insight: "It's my responsibility to be as happy as I can be, right here, today." Then, politely, she let me know that her show, a current events program, was coming on the television: "I like to keep up with things!" I thanked her for her time and took my leave.

I didn't go back to that nursing home, and I imagine that June Driscoll lived no more than a few months. But I found myself thinking, "What's that all about?" How can it be that someone at the end of life and beset with a host of physical problems would have such a positive and optimistic outlook?

And so 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 I was not disappointed.

I came to believe that the knowledge of America's elders can serve as an extraordinary guide to finding fulfillment when life gets difficult. Older people bring firsthand experience to the table. They have lived life and learned from it. Suddenly the answer seemed obvious: why not interview a large number of elders so others can take advantage of "the wisdom of crowds"? We know that large groups of people often prove smarter than a few elite pundits and are better at solving problems and making good decisions.

When you put together lots of older people who have lived rich and fulfilling lives and who are willing to share their life lessons with others, you have a unique source of guidance--one that can help Americans of all ages. Their wisdom makes them the true experts on living well, even when times get tough. Readers will find in this volume both practical solutions and assurance that it is indeed possible to overcome life's major challenges and to discover joy in the face of adversity.

Older Americans: The Experts on Living

We are on the verge of losing an irreplaceable natural resource. The inexorable process of human aging is depriving us of one of the most extraordinary groups of human beings that has ever lived: America's older generation. The last veteran of World War I has died; those of World War II are now in their eighties. The youngest children of the Great Depression have reached their late seventies. When this generation has passed, where will we go to recover the lessons they learned about life and the wisdom they can offer us about surviving and thriving in a difficult world? Each older person, as the interviews in this book demonstrate, is a storehouse of experience and guidance for how to live well. But as each of these lives winks out, the light it can shed is lost. Behind this book is a sense of urgency. It is predicated on a need to distill, preserve, and share what America's elders have to teach us about leading a happy, fulfilling life--before they are gone.

As the title of this book indicates, I believe our elders are the wisest Americans. Therefore throughout this book I use a special term for the people I talked with: "the experts." Why do I call them the experts on how to make the most of your life? I'll give you some good reasons.

Older people have one unique source of knowledge that the rest of us do not: they have lived their lives. They have been where younger people haven't. It's true that they may not be the quickest to program a DVD player, may prefer to face a bank teller in person than to use an ATM, and probably aren't up on the latest reality TV show. But they have the enormous advantage of life experience. Indeed people who have lived most of a long life are in an ideal position to assess accurately what "works" and what doesn't. It is precisely such expertise that I tapped for this book. A younger person simply can't know life as deeply and intimately as an older person does.

Another reason to listen to the experts' advice about living is that they are extraordinary people. America's elders have lived through experiences many of us today can barely imagine. Their limits have been tested by illness, failure, oppression, loss, and danger. It is precisely these situations that lead to transcendental wisdom. And America's elders have it to a greater degree than the rest of us because, on average, they have been pushed to the limit more than we have. They have survived these experiences, absorbed them, and gained invaluable insights from them.

Older people (and especially those in their seventies and beyond) have lived in a very different way from Americans today. They risked their lives in World War II, coming home with a widened view of the world but also deep scars. Some survived the Holocaust and others cheated death daily, fighting in the Resistance. Most grew up in times of sore deprivation--this has shaped their attitudes toward wealth and material goods. Their childhoods were sometimes beset with grim difficulties, and many of them experienced the horrors of war and poverty firsthand. But they also remember a time when the air and water were cleaner, when people didn't lock their houses, and when neighbors could be called on for help. They bring to contemporary problems and choices perspectives from a different time. This unique point of view can be enormously valuable as a lens through which to view our own lives.

Finally, there's one more reason why throughout this book I call America's elders "the experts" and why I refer to them as "the wisest Americans" in its title. Their unique perspective provides a much-needed antidote to conventional wisdom about the "good life" in contemporary American society. Conventional wisdom is what everybody knows--what the members of a society learn while they are growing up. Conventional wisdom is convenient because it provides guidance about how to live, offering up images of the good life and reinforcing the values of the culture. Ultimately, conventional wisdom becomes the basis for our identity and sense of self-esteem.

The experts' advice often upends contemporary conventional wisdom and points to an alternative. This alternative wisdom defies simple categorization: sometimes their insights are what we think of as liberal (the elders endorse religious tolerance, for example, and they reject materialistic worldviews) and sometimes conservative (such as proposing that marriage should be seen as a lifelong commitment). At times their viewpoint seems radically different from that of the young-this is true of their attitude toward time and how to spend it. But it is in this challenge to the conventional worldview of younger people that the true value of their wisdom lies. It can lead us to examine contemporary social conventions and make more conscious decisions about our own scripts for happiness.

This book is predicated on one idea: that the accumulated wisdom of America's elders--the experts-can serve as an excellent guide to life for people of all ages. The experts possess deep knowledge of just about every problem a human being can experience. You be the judge and see what the advice of over one thousand of the wisest Americans can tell you. As much as possible, I have let the experts speak for themselves, allowing you to hear the lessons they offer through direct quotes. I think you will find that the road map for life they provide will help you to take a new look at your own situation and to choose new ways of living that will make you happier.

Harvesting the Life Lessons of the Experts

Without boring you with technical detail, I'd like to tell you how the information in this book was collected. (A detailed appendix appears at the end of this book, for those of you who are interested.) My approach to gathering the information was to use methods that allowed people to speak their minds, telling their stories in rich detail (what social scientists refer to as "qualitative" research). I began by publicizing the project and inviting older people to send me their answers to the questions "What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?" and "If you were offering a younger person advice about how to live, what would you tell him or her?" To my surprise and de-light, hundreds of letters came in from across the country, and many more people entered responses on a website created for the project.

Next I conducted a national survey of over three hundred people age sixty-five and over. This was a scientifically conducted survey in which respondents were selected at random and called on the telephone by trained interviewers. The survey began by asking them, in general, "What lessons have you learned in your life?" It then followed up by asking what respondents felt they had learned in specific domains, such as work and career, marriage, raising children, health, and religion and spirituality. They were also asked whether there were any problems or difficulties in their lives that had taught them valuable lessons, what core values and principles they lived by, and what advice they had about how to age successfully.

Finally, to get the most complete picture possible, detailed, in-depth interviews were conducted with approximately three hundred people from around the country and from many walks of life. I asked a range of individuals and organizations to suggest people over the age of sixty-five who they considered to be particularly wise. The nominated elders were encouraged to describe their views in great detail and to provide the life histories that formed the background to the lessons they'd learned. In all, well over one thousand older Americans answered the question, "What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?" You hold in your hands what they had to say.

What You Will Find Here

In collecting the data and writing this book, my primary goal was that the reader should find the information useful. The point was not to tell the life stories of older people-other books do that. I spent months reviewing, sorting, and categorizing the thousands of specific pieces of advice the experts offered on almost every imaginable challenge life can offer. I then distilled their perspectives on these issues, summing up what over a thousand people who had lived most of their lives saw as the advice they wished to offer to younger generations. As I combed through hundreds of pages of responses, the advice the experts offered fell naturally into six major themes. Within each of these themes, I have distilled five key lessons. That's what you will find in the following chapters: thirty lessons for living that you can begin using right away.

I start with what the experts advise us about getting and staying married, based on their total of about thirty thousand years of married life (many have been married for thirty, forty, fifty, or more years). We move then to their advice on finding a career you love and keeping it fulfilling; they've done everything from manual labor to writing poetry to occupying the CEO's office suite. Next we look at their lessons about child rearing, drawn from their collective experience raising around three thousand kids. I devote a chapter to an area in which no one would doubt their expertise: how to grow old fearlessly and well. Then the experts tackle a question that can save us all much inner turmoil: how to avoid having serious regrets throughout your life. The last five lessons take on the big picture: what do the experts know about how to make the most of life, remaining happy and fulfilled despite inevitable loss and illness?

So what do you have before you? Think of the thirty lessons for living as a road map. What, after all, is a road map built upon besides the combined experience of countless people who have traveled the terrain before? As you will see in this book, there are things about life-secrets, if you will-that are probably impossible for younger people to know firsthand. We need to consult those who have already traveled the roads, byways, dead ends, and unexpected detours to understand which directions our lives should take. You will not be reading the words of celebrities, popular pundits, TV preachers, twentysomething "lifestyle" critics, or paid motivational speakers. You will instead be reading the voice of experience from the oldest and wisest Americans-the experts. I think it may change your life. It did mine.

Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin
Group (USA) Inc., from 30 Lessons for Living by Karl Pillemer. Copyright
©2012

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