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Views from the Aging Edge

Music Suggestion: My Generation, The Who (enjoy this fun version from The Zimmers) Drink Suggestion: Four Roses Bourbon

Yet a day comes when a man notices that ….he belongs to time and by the horror that seizes him he recognizes his worst enemy, tomorrow. – Albert Camus.

“Do something to make your parents proud.” Unsaid but implicit in this directive was the coda, “for a change.” My grandmother was a spritely 99 when she wished me good luck upon my first extended move away from home, to begin my young college days in Texas some 35 years ago. Born in 1878 (just imagine), Grammy was a wise and wrinkled sage who had seen much of the world, living in the Sudan, Puerto Rico, and up and down the East Coast, accompanying my grandfather, the stern Scots-Irish minister, as he wandered the globe tending the flock. She suffered fools (like her grandson) with patience but was not shy to offer advice. Unfortunately, I too quickly dismissed advice like this from Grammy, from my parents, from anyone not of My Generation.

It is our loss that the advice of elders is not more regularly sought or highly valued. Only they can speak from experience on things like family, regrets, happiness, career choices, and the value of good health and well-being. Karl Pillemer shares this sentiment and set out to document the opinions and advice of older Americans, seeking common threads in the guidance they proffered. Pillemer is a Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College and directs the Cornell Legacy Project. He also authored 30 Lessons for Living, Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

To copy/paste Amazon’s introduction of the book:

After a chance encounter with an extraordinary ninety-year-old woman, renowned gerontologist Karl Pillemer began to wonder what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. His quest led him to interview more than one thousand Americans over the age of sixty-five to seek their counsel on all the big issues- children, marriage, money, career, aging. Their moving stories and uncompromisingly honest answers often surprised him. And he found that he consistently heard advice that pointed to these thirty lessons for living. Here he weaves their personal recollections of difficulties overcome and lives well lived into a timeless book filled with the hard-won advice these older Americans wish someone had given them when they were young.

I enjoyed reading 30 Lessons for Living and was struck by the alignment of lessons therein – common sense opinions from very common people – with principles on happiness routinely proposed by the better-known gurus and academics in the field. Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Chopra, all respected thought leaders in the business of happiness, preach deeper fulfillment through small moments and the savoring of simple pleasures, not extravagance and grandiosity. Gratitude, lifelong personal development, self-determination, respect for one’s health, networking, and the pursuit of one’s passions now are all themes shared amongst these giants in the field (and touched on occasionally in these postcards by your blogger).

Here is Csikszentmihalyi, writing about happiness and its attainment in his seminal piece Flow, through the appreciation of simple things: sight, taste, music, and mastering one’s body (sex and yoga being good avenues). There is Csikszentmihalyi again, introducing his readers to the deeply fulfilled autotelic worker, who is internally driven to succeed, not externally driven to make money. Now some Chopra (with a few annoying background violins) telling us about the power of gratitude and its connection to the soul in this YouTube video. And Chopra’s law of Dharma: “Seek your higher Self. Discover your unique talents”.

Seligman cites that every person (save 1) in the top 10% of happiness in his highly-respected research on the topic was involved in a romantic relationship, that happier people have significantly richer social lives than their glummer counterparts. More Seligman, this time on the deception of the hedonic treadmill; the more we attain, the more our expectations rise. The things we worked so hard to acquire no longer satisfy. In the words of my favorite narcissist of this generation, Homer Simpson, “more please.”

There was general consensus amongst Pillemer’s study participants on a number of themes (which he boiled down to the 30 lessons). For example on happiness: time is short so act on it now; do those things that are important now. Happiness is a choice. Stop wasting time worrying. Don’t stress (“this too will pass” was a favorite saying of my mother’s when I would call to complain about the kids or share other annoyances). Think small and be grateful for the small things you can enjoy. Savor life’s daily moments. Focus on the short term, not long term. Understand how much is enough, and the difference between wants and needs. Walk on your tiptoes and look for the “aha” moments in everyday life, not the big things.

According to Pillemer, “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.”

I don’t have your attention long enough to review the full 30 lessons list here, but offer this: if you are overwhelmed by the volume of self-help tomes on the bookstore shelves today – Pillemer claims that over 30,000 have been published – you may want to opt for his beautifully simple addition. Also, the Legacy Project website at Cornell is updated daily with new stories and interviews. There is no agenda amongst his contributors to be edgy or conformist, to grab your attention and sell books and advice. They are simply telling it the way they see it after many moons on this earth, many joys lived and mistakes made.

I will close out with favorite quote from one of Pillemer’s many interviewees:

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.

Amen to that.

Oh, a final note on my Grammy. She liked to keep a bottle of Four Roses bourbon in the freezer for her nightly nip. My saintly mother, the small-town doctor’s wife and teetotaling church deacon, would slip discretely down the alleyway behind Grammy’s apartment  to the local liquor store and pick up Grammy’s favored tipple. Yes, and in a heavy paper bag please.

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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