Robert Barker, Cornell University Photography
ITHACA, N.Y. — When he turned 50, Karl Pillemer began to notice some differences in his perspective on life.
“The things that bothered me didn’t irk me so much anymore,” said the Cornell gerontologist. “You begin to take a longer view of things — you see how individual events find their place in a larger context.”
This led Pillemer to ask: Is there something older people know that the young don’t about how to live?
Words of wisdom
To find out, Pillemer and colleagues collected pearls of wisdom from more than 1,200 older Americans about living better, happier lives.
In July, he launched the Legacy Project blog to share hard-won insights, recommendations and philosophies of living.
“A lot of my research has been on what one might call the negative or dark side of aging — studies on elder abuse, nursing home care, Alzheimer’s disease and chronic pain,” Pillemer said. “But research also shows that older people are often happier than those in middle age and younger. I wanted to understand why that is and make their advice of happier living available to younger people.”
Consulting the academic literature, Pillemer found that although there have been studies on “elder wisdom,” older people have not been systematically asked to share practical advice about leading a happy life.
Major themes emerged from his interviews, which Pillemer distilled into a set of “life lessons” in such categories as love and marriage; child rearing; work and career; aging well; avoiding regrets; dealing with loss; and prescriptions for happiness.
Contributors have submitted lists, one-line answers and what Pillemer calls “long, existential, soul-searching answers.” In-depth interviews were conducted with about 600 elders across the country.
“At 70 and beyond, studies show, many people do develop a sense of purpose and serenity,” Pillemer said. “We captured that perspective in hopes that younger people could learn from it.”
The Legacy Project website, http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/, will continue indefinitely, Pillemer said, and it welcomes new submissions from people 60 and up, as well as comments and discussions.
A new life lesson is posted daily, with plans for audio and video content to enhance the site soon.
Reading all this advice has changed Pillemer’s life, he said.
“One of the strongest lessons from the elders is this principle for dealing with your adult children: Don’t interfere! I have two adult daughters, and I really took that advice to heart and became much more careful to offer advice only when asked. The elders give that kind of clear advice that all of us can use in everyday life.”
Shove worry aside
Other major lessons: Don’t worry so much; elders say they deeply regret time spent needlessly worrying. Marry someone a lot like you, who has similar values. Avoid showing favoritism to children.
And get on the road: Not having traveled enough is a source of regret for many seniors.
Pillemer said the elders he interviewed “have a unique ability to advise us. We’ve gotten used to motivational speakers and pop psychologists instead of individuals who are right next door or in our families. People in their 70s and beyond can teach us how to meet major challenges in life and to learn to focus more on small-scale, day-to-day happiness.
“People into their 90s told us they feel a kind of freedom they’ve never felt before; they can live as they want to; they have less responsibility and are less concerned with what people think.”
Another goal of the Legacy Project, said Pillemer, is to capture this practical wisdom before this oldest generation is gone.