Our elders have decades of knowledge and wisdom to pass on to future generations, but will we listen? Professor Karl Pillemer of Cornell University is on a mission to make sure we heed our elders’ sagely advice. Learn more.
Professor Pillemer, who specializes in gerontology and human development, has made it his life’s goal to document seniors’ advice to younger people. He founded the Legacy Project to gather elders’ responses to the question, “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?” Dr. Pillemer and his team interviewed more than 1,000 seniors in the U.S., archiving their responses online, posting videotaped interviews on YouTube, and distilling their advice into a critically acclaimed book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.
Here are some favorite pieces of advice from America’s wisest:
1. Happiness is a choice, not a condition
Dr. Pillemer writes, “The consensus of the elders is that we can’t wait for external events to bring about happiness.” He goes on to quote 86-year-old Cheryl who says, “I came into this world with nothing, my experiences are only mine, and I will leave this world with nothing. The only one I can change is myself. You must learn to create your own happiness; you cannot depend on others to do it for you.”
2. Parenting – It’s all about time
Older Americans had one piece of parenting advice that cropped up time and time again. According to Dr. Pillemer, “The elders tell us that there is one great contribution to life-long closeness for which there is no substitute: Your time.” He quotes 78-year-old Betsey Glynn who says, “It’s so important, while your kids are growing up, to be with them and support them. Because otherwise you don’t really have a clue what their direction is, what they like and don’t like and what they want to give their time to and what they’re doing with it.”
3. Act now like you will need your body for 100 years
One of the most important lessons Dr. Pillemer learned from seniors is that, “It’s not dying you should worry about — it’s chronic disease.” He quoted 84-year-old Charlotte who said, “What you do when you’re young, it will haunt you when you get old. If you’re young, take care of your body, live right, go to the doctor and keep yourself in good shape. Don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form.”
4. Choose a spouse or partner with extreme care
Many seniors talked about regrets during Legacy Project interviews. Feelings of regret were most commonly voiced by those who rushed into marriage with the wrong partner. Dr. Pillemer writes, “Although many people delay getting married, all of us know young people who have rushed into relationships. Sometimes people fall head over heels in love; others feel that their ‘time clock’ is running out. For anyone seeking a mate, the elders tell you to be very careful — and don’t rush in.”
5. Being old is much better than you think
Many seniors reported that they are happier now than ever before. 93-year-old Cecile said, “I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person—not just as an adult, but as an older person — things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, ‘I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life.’”
What lessons have you learned from older loved ones? Are you an elder with your own advice to share? We welcome your thoughts in the comments below.