At 17, I wrote a speech titled, “When You Come to the End of Your Days, Will You Be Able to Write Your Own Epitaph?” It reflected the approach to life I adopted after my mother’s untimely death from cancer at age 49. I chose to live each day as if it could be my last — but with a watchful eye on the future in case it wasn’t.
My goal was, and still is, to die without regrets.
For more than 50 years, this course has served me well, including my decision to become a science journalist instead of pursuing what had promised to be a more lucrative and prestigious, but probably less enjoyable, career as a biochemist. I find joy each day in mundane things too often overlooked: sunrises and sunsets, an insect on a flower, crows chasing a hawk, a majestic tree, a child at play, an act of kindness toward a stranger.
Eventually, most of us learn valuable lessons about how to conduct a successful and satisfying life. But for far too many people, the learning comes too late to help them avoid painful mistakes and decades of wasted time and effort.
In recent years, for example, many talented young people have denied their true passions, choosing instead to pursue careers that promise fast and big monetary gains. High rates of divorce speak to an impulsiveness to marry and a tenuous commitment to vows of “till death do us part.”
Parents undermine children’s self-confidence and self-esteem by punishing them physically or pushing them down paths, both academic and athletic, that they are ill equipped to follow. And myriad prescriptions for antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs reflect a widespread tendency to sweat the small stuff, a failure to recognize time-honored sources of happiness, and a reliance on material acquisitions that provide only temporary pleasure.
Enter an invaluable source of help, if anyone is willing to listen while there is still time to take corrective action. It is a new book called “30 Lessons for Living” (Hudson Street Press) that offers practical advice from more than 1,000 older Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata who were interviewed as part of the ongoing Cornell Legacy Project.
Its author, Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell and a gerontologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College, calls his subjects “the experts,” and their advice is based on what they did right and wrong in their long lives. Many of the interviews can be viewed at legacyproject.human.cornell.edu.
Here is a summary of their most salient thoughts.
ON MARRIAGE A satisfying marriage that lasts a lifetime is more likely to result when partners are fundamentally similar and share the same basic values and goals. Although romantic love initially brings most couples together, what keeps them together is an abiding friendship, an ability to communicate, a willingness to give and take, and a commitment to the institution of marriage as well as to each other.
An 89-year-old woman who was glad she stayed in her marriage even though her young husband’s behavior was adversely affected by his military service said, “Too many young people now are giving up too early, too soon.”
ON CAREERS Not one person in a thousand said that happiness accrued from working as hard as you can to make money to buy whatever you want. Rather, the near-universal view was summed up by an 83-year-old former athlete who worked for decades as an athletic coach and recruiter: “The most important thing is to be involved in a profession that you absolutely love, and that you look forward to going to work to every day.”
Although it can take a while to land that ideal job, you should not give up looking for one that makes you happy. Meanwhile, if you’re stuck in a bad job, try to make the most of it until you can move on. And keep in mind that a promotion may be flattering and lucrative but not worth it if it takes you away from what you most enjoy doing.
ON PARENTING The demands of modern life often have a negative effect on family life, especially when economic pursuits limit the time parents spend with their children. Most important, the elders said, is to spend more time with your children, even if you must sacrifice to do so.
Share in their activities, and do things with them that interest them. Time spent together enables parents to detect budding problems and instill important values.
While it’s normal to prefer one child over others, it is critical not to make comparisons and show favoritism. Discipline is important when needed, but physical punishment is rarely effective and can result in children who are aggressive and antisocial.
“Too many young people now are giving up too early, too soon.”
In my case, I think I gave up too late =)
On aging: Most found that old age vastly exceeded their expectations. Even those with serious chronic illnesses enjoyed a sense of calm and contentment. A 92-year-old who can no longer do many of the things she once enjoyed said: “I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. Things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important.”
So true! I call this shedding issues.
ON HAPPINESS: Almost to a person, the elders viewed happiness as a choice, not the result of how life treats you.
Has to do with choosing what's important.
That is true, Michel, I know a few people who gave up too late...
hmm. i married a japanese, not similar. i think the diference is what keeps us going. if interests are similar, conversation will soon die. of course happiness is a choice. to me thats a truism.
But I would bet your values are similar. That's what's important, not the specific interests, I think.
yes but i interpreted the marriage instruction as marry people you know from like birth
Does anybody but me have regrets ? about the way I handle things or made wrong choices or listened to the wrong people or not dealing fairly in my relationships with some people ? Well I have regrets but I don't dwell on them... I think I live according to what I have become to the best of my abilities ( it may seem profound but I do not think it is...)
nope. im ok with myself so whatever went into making me is ok too. you cn only do what good you can. what i couldn't do i dont regret. i dont even regret loosing my leg.
I don't have regrets in the grand scheme of things, but I know I'm a very fortunate person. What I do have is regrets for specific things I did or failed to do at some points in my life, which may have changed my relationships with people who are close to me, for the better.
My regrets are also for specific things or choices I made in my life...
Not to be critical, but all of these insights seem pretty banal too me. Of course marriages will last longer when the people have similar values and many things in common, for example. And the advice about spending time with your children....and not beating them...well, if you really did not realize that before you read the article, you're pretty hopeless as a parent in my opinion. And also, of course, no 83 year old will tell you that she was at her happiest when she could make lots of money to buy stuff, but maybe a 30 year old will be really happy just having the money to buy nice clothes, shoes, etc. And also, 80-some year olds value different things than younger people, and thus may remember things differently, what made them happy at different points in their lives, etc.
The advice about choosing a profession that one loves is very sound; however, not many people are lucky enough to be able to do that, some people never get the opportunity to do that, not because they don't want to, but because they were too worried trying to make ends meet. It is very sad. Very few people get into a boring, shitty job because that's what they were planning to do.
The best part of the article is the closing sentence, which I fully endorse:
Even if their lives were nine decades long, the elders saw life as too short to waste on pessimism, boredom and disillusionment.
I agree entirely with you, Adriana