Our elders have decades of knowledge and wisdom to pass on to future generations, but will we listen? Professor Karl Pillemer of Cornell University is on a mission to make sure we heed our elders’ sagely advice. Pillemer, who specializes in gerontology and human development, has made it his life’s goal to document seniors’ advice to younger people. He founded the Legacy Project to gather elders’ responses to the question, “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?”
Dr. Pillemer and his team interviewed more than 1,000 seniors, archiving their responses online, posting videotaped interviews on YouTube, and distilling their advice into a critically acclaimed book: “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans”.
Here is some advice from America’s wisest:
1. Happiness is a choice, not a condition.
Dr. Pillemer writes, “The consensus of the elders is that we can’t wait for external events to bring about happiness.” He goes on to quote 86-year-old Cheryl who says, “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. You must learn to create your own happiness; you cannot depend on others to do it for you.”
I think most of us feel entitled to happiness. We expect it from our partners, families and friends. Yet what are we willing to do about our lack of happiness? I think most of us don’t really know how to be happy. In spite of the wisdom of our elders do we really accept that happiness is an inside job? If we do accept that concept how do we get it “inside” when our focus as a society is to find it “outside”. Especially with “stuff”. We are encouraged to work hard and get more stuff. More cars. More gadgets. More clothes and shoes. When did it become “normal” to pay more for a car than our parents did for a house? And do all these things really make us happy?
My dying father shared his perspective of this with me. “All my life I have scrimped and saved. I have been tighter than a bark on a tree. Always worried about having enough to support my family. I never missed a day of work. Now I have the resources and the time to travel to all the places I want to see but I don’t have the health.” But I think he learned about true happiness in his final years. It came from his grandchildren. As his life slowed down he had the most precious commodity: time. He went to all his grand-kids games and school events. He spent his mornings having coffee with his cronies. He watched all the football and basketball games his television delivered into his living room. He sat back and watched the activity of his large family playing out in his home. He did travel to visit his kids and felt great happiness in connecting with his kids through their kids. Simple pleasures. Great happiness and contentment. When he died most of his family was with him. Sending him on, loving and appreciating him to the end.
In my seminars we talk about how we create our reality with our thoughts and what we choose to line our energy up with. We also learn how to find the opportunity in our problems. As long as we focus on what we don’t have or don’t want we actually create more of the very things we view as problems.
So what is the opportunity for us right now? The news and internet are full of dire predictions about our economy. Many people are unemployed, underemployed or have given up. Prices have gone up for many essentials and the end result is worry, frustration and unhappiness. One obvious opportunity is to change how we view happiness. If our elders are right, and I suspect they are, then maybe we can achieve happiness by having less. When we change our focus from our belief that happiness comes from the things I acquire to happiness comes from more simple pleasures then we can all benefit.
Some simple pleasures we can all afford: Nature is available for exploration and brings a great sense of happiness and peace. Friendship: talking, sharing and contributing our time to helping others leads to a sense of bonding and purpose. Getting books from the library is free for all who have a card. Most communities offer free activities where you can connect with others and perhaps discover something new about where you live. I am sure you can add many more options to this list.
It’s time to listen to our wise elders. It’s time to redefine happiness. It’s time to realize that whether you are happy or unhappy is your choice. I choose to be happy. How about you?