In contemporary society, we don't often ask our elders for advice. We're much more likely to talk to professionals, read books by pop psychologists or motivational speakers, or surf the internet for solutions to our problems. In general (and for the first time in human history), we no longer look to our society's oldest members as a key source of wisdom for how to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
As a gerontologist, I have come to believe that this attitude is a serious mistake. Older individuals (especially persons age 70 and beyond), are in fact the most credible experts we have available for knowledge about how to live well through hard times. They have been through unique historical experiences -- such as the Great Depression and World War II -- that have taught them how to thrive in the face of adversity. And they have personally experienced many of the tragedies younger people dread, giving them the ability to advise the rest of us about resilience in the face of illness and loss.
Over the past six years, I've conducted a research project designed to tap the practical wisdom of older Americans. Using several different social science methods, I've collected responses from over 1,200 elders to the question: "Over the course of your life, what are the most important lessons you would like to pass on to younger people." I then combed through the responses, and the result was a set of lessons for living from the people I have called "the wisest Americans."
As I look back over years of talking with America's elders, 10 lessons stand out as those they would like most to convey to younger people. Read these "Top 10 Lessons for Living" and let me know how they apply to your own life.
- Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones. Although many grew up in poverty, the elders believe that the biggest career mistake people make is selecting a profession based only on potential earnings. A sense of purpose and passion for one's work beats a bigger paycheck any day.
As the holidays approach, that last lesson is a great one to think about. Because of their awareness that life is short, the elders have become attuned to the minute pleasures that younger people often are only aware of if they have been deprived of them: a morning cup of good coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio (all pleasures mentioned in my interviews). Paying special attention to these "microlevel" events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up on a daily basis. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well -- and it's well worth a try at any age!
And if you learn something valuable from an elder, or you would like to share your own advice, you can add it to our website http://legacyproject.
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