30 Lessons for Living: Life Advice From the Oldest Americans
Karl Pillemer on collecting life advice from those who've lived the most of it.
For five years, Karl Pillemer sat down with more than 1,000 older Americans—most of them between the ages of 70 and 100—to talk about lessons for living well.
In the resulting book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice From the Wisest Americans, to be published next month, Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell, has culled 30 life lessons from his “experts,” ranging from the practical to the profound. How to raise children? How to think about dying?
Think of this book as 1,000 borrowed grandparents weighing in on life’s various challenges. A salty pragmatism runs throughout, and only a modicum of introspection is encouraged.
A case in point is the section on parenting. Here a blunt conclusion surfaces: most parents have a favorite child. They may not grasp it, they may not admit it, but nevertheless they do.
“I learned from the experts that the blanket statement ‘I love all of my children equally’ is entirely consistent with the truth ‘but I like one of them more than the others,’” Pillemer writes.
The thing that matters for parents is to never, ever let it show. Nothing damages siblings’ relationships to one another or creates lifelong reservoirs of pain and insecurity like the shadow of parental favoritism. The takeaway here is simple: accept that you probably have a favorite child and shut up about it.
The experts offer equally clearcut, pragmatic advice for what is, according to researchers and civilians alike, the single most important decision we make: the partners we choose to spend our lives with. Their advice? Choose someone a lot like you.
“The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogamous in terms of economic background, religion, and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier,” writes Pillemer.
There’s almost no ambiguity about this one. A shared value system is the single most important factor in a successful marriage. Of course, this requires knowing what one values, one expert humorously points out. The important thing is to hone your sense of what really matters to you—and your ability to gauge the same in your potential partner.
Here again, advice from the experts: If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t wallow in regrets. Make like the legendary Kitty Carlisle Hart, who adhered to a daily ritual. As soon as she woke up, she looked squarely into the mirror and said out loud: “Kitty, I forgive you.”
She lived to be 96.
Of course, the experts also weigh in on that all-important American obsession with work. They caution against choosing a career for the money alone. It’s never worth it. Do something that matters to you.
In 2011, with the economy floundering and even bad jobs in short supply, advice like this might ring a bit idealistic. But it’s worth remembering that it's coming from Americans who were born before, during, or directly after the Great Depression, and who grew up with Depression-era values governing their households.
We’re not the first Americans to weather bad times. So if you’re in a dreary job, try for a better one. And if a better one isn’t immediately available, find a way to make the best of your current situation. And whatever it is you are doing at the moment, really master it. “You will feel better about yourself,” they say.
Another strategy: find the value in it. It’s there, even if it’s nothing more than learning from a “toxic colleague” how not to behave. There are lessons to be learned from every experience, and you will inevitably benefit from having learned them.
Having covered such concrete concerns as choosing spouses, making marriages work, raising children, and finding satisfaction in careers, the experts shift gears towards the ineffable. How best to live fearlessly? One strategy is to cultivate curiosity. Ninety-five-year-old Arnold Schwartz, who fled Hitler’s Germany, weighed in on the subject from a senior center in New York.
“I would say that what has helped me is curiosity. I was always very interested in people, all kinds of people. I would speak with Nazis in Germany, and communists, and Zionists. My curiosity gave me a lot throughout my life.”
A version of the same theme emerged when the experts talked about being old. Whereas many had been filled with trepidation about aging, actually being aged turned out to be not nearly so bad. In their descriptions of it, they used words like “quest” and “adventure.” When you’re old, one expert said, “You are freer than you could ever imagine being."
A common thread among the experts on this topic was levity in their attitudes and a firmness to their advice: whatever you do, don't consume your younger years with anxiety about your older ones. In fact, one of the strongest, most clearcut messages in the book is to “choose happiness,” every day, again and again, actively and effortfully. And one of the most direct strategies for accomplishing this goal, say the experts, is to stop worrying.
“Focus on the short term,” the experts tell us. Keep your gaze directed firmly at the subject at hand, in the current moment, on the room you’re in.
“Think small.” Delight in your Swedish Fish. Dance on. Happiness is not contingent on realizing your hypothetical criteria for success. Life is now.
“Prepare.” Stop puttering around, sit down at your desk, and write out the speech or practice the sonata 100 times. Take concrete steps aimed at addressing the problem that looms, rather than ruminating abstractly about what-if scenarios.
The larger point that emerges is one that likely resonates for many readers. What are we really talking about when we’re talking about how worried we are? Concrete concerns that one can plan for are one thing. But, for the experts, “It’s the free floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them,” Pillemer observes.
According to many scientists who study this issue, he says, “The key characteristic of worry is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about.” And this kind of foreboding rumination epitomizes the trap that so many of us find ourselves ensnared in, sinking our time into fruitless, baseless anxiety.
As 73-year-old Joshua Bateman puts it: “If you’re going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is.”
Get down to the business of living well. Do it now. And heed the philosophy of 94-year-old Edwina Elbert: “I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.”