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Lessons for living


In the age of the Internet, when was the last time you sought out an elder for advice? In a recent survey in the United Kingdom, nine out of 10 elders said they were being overlooked for advice from their grandchildren.

This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and a professor of gerontology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. In 2004, he founded The Legacy Project for which he collected practical advice for living from over 1,000 senior citizens across the nation. The project led to his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”

Click "Read More" to hear our interview with Dr. Karl Pillemer.

Credit Cornell University College of Human Ecology / cornell.edu
Dr. Karl Pillemer, Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development, Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and director of the Cornell Legacy Project.

As he dug into his research, Dr. Pillemer said one thing that struck him most was how happy older people were in spite of things like chronic illness and a large amount of loss. He said that as people get older they are aware of their age and that their days are numbered. Rather than make them depressed, Dr. Pillemer says it helps people make better choices to be around people that make them happier, choose better experiences and regulate their emotions.

“It hit me: why do we have to wait until we’re 70 and beyond to understand? Perhaps we could ask people about that and they could tell us,” he said.

Dr. Pillemer also contributes a lot of this group’s happiness to the age in which they grew up. They have experienced war and economic hardships before and know firsthand how to get through them.

He also highlighted that happiness is a choice and not an outcome. When interviewing an impaired woman, she said that people have to take responsibility for their own happiness. Dr. Pellimer says that may young people go through conditional happiness where they are happy if they can get a partner or if they can get a job. One frequent piece of advice he received was the importance of being happy in spite of things.

During his interviews, Dr. Pillemer said there were some fundamental lessons that people gave which he thinks constitute the “elder lens on life,” such as:

  • Life is short: Dr. Pillemer said that many people who spoke to thought that young people squander their time and that by the time you are 70, 90 or 100, you will look back and won’t be able to believe how quickly life passes.
  • Choose work that you enjoy: this was a surprise, Dr. Pillemer said, adding that he expected children of the Great Depression to suggest to try and seek out a stable job that would pay well. Instead, he found that people suggested leaving a job that doesn’t make you happy or to find your passion and follow it.
  • People and experiences trump things: no one is suggesting living life as a starving artist, Dr. Pillemer said that older people would rather spend money on traveling and with people you enjoy. Working to have money is great, but an excess of money might not be needed, Dr. Pillemer found in his interviews.