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NY Times

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.

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Replies to This Discussion

As I grow old, one thing becomes clear to me - and it's inescapably banal - "don't waste your time, it is very limited." This piece of advice however is typically useless to young people with an undefined  quantity of time ahead of them =)

Yea the advice is rather banal....  Not much that we don't already know, but don't always apply.

I communicate via chat with a guy I met on OK Cupid who is 65, he is in a thankless marriage, has social anxiety, and consequently is extremely isolated and lonely.  He's desperate for intimacy, for connection, but is too insecure to reach out.  Hurts my heart...   He's extremely intelligent, an atheist, and surprisingly witty, but thinks so little of himself.  Many, many regrets.  He feels as though his fate is sealed.  Change is too risky, he's just too old. 

Of course I try to console him, cajole him, offer my advice - for whatever it's worth...   Sad to say, many older adults feel condemned to stagnate.  Unable and unwilling to consider change.  I can feel tugs of resistance myself.  Resignation is an all too familiar part of the aging process, and I have to force myself to resist going too far along that deadly path.

Check out the 'Interactive Short Video Feature' with this article: The Lessons of Life.  I especially appreciated the one on Success.

well i was extremely insecure as a child. with m=y upbringing it was inevitable. however as soon as i was big i got secure. and i built up my self confidence. ha ha i dunno, ive met a few amputees here and they all seem full of pain and even hate for the two legged ones. i havn't got this at all.  tis a mystery

I think someone who can't consider change at that age is probably never going to achieve it. Aging makes us all more fearful of change, I think. You are very wise to avoid going down the path of resignation!

As our perception of time is relative with age. it's ovious that for a twenty year old, one year seems much longer than for a fifty year old personé

I agree Marianne. I remember when I was a wee lad the days seemed endless but now I turn around and they are done and time to go to sleep again! Even when you made to wait for something the time seems shorter now than when I had to wait when younger. 

I have one hell of a time trying to post because I lack the knowledge. I will try this first to see where, or IF, it goes anywhere, because I really want to post on this subject as I approach my 75th birthday.

 

Doing fine so far, Robert =)

Thanks, but I just lost the epistle I prepared. Brief version - I do more than most in physical activity, reasonably well informed, absolutly do NOT accept the "Life is what you think it is". Approach the dreaded afternoon hours looking to see the world through the haze of the vinter's trade, or my favorite herb.

Told by my wife yesterday :"you realize we have ten functional years left". Lost everything that I used to do with ease. Stopped playing music (professionally since 15), can't conceive of a hobby that interests me, well read, well informed, pretty funny so I can laugh a lot and give that to other people.

 

Absolutely unaware of my surroundings, would walk around a good sized replica of the Statue of Liberty in my front yard and not see it - so I never smell the roses, see an insect. Believe the only response is "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die" meme. Find the Rubyiat supportive -- "the vinter can never be paid the value of that which he sells" or some such language.Absolutely bored AFTER two hours of swimming, biking, weights, couple hours of reading the news, catching the drift of the financial world on Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance, etc..Well read, but then, 3:00 comes and the meaningless of it all drops down like a curtain on life. My response is daily obliteration -- and many of my neighbors do precisely the same.

I can continue on this theme for some time. Don't want to lose it though -- the now lost letter was better composed, more thorougly referenced. Too much trouble for the nonce. Thanks 

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