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Happiness is a choice, and other life lessons from the Legacy Project

This post is not exactly about new business opportunities for the aging market, but something more prosaic - a look inside the mind of Americans elders, and an opportunity to pause, and reflect what that means for us as society.

Dr. Karl Pillemer is a Professor of Gerontology at Cornell and has been a productive man during the course of his trifling 57 years on the planet. He has over 100 publications to his name in the field of aging research, and these have been, as he describes it, like the "Book of Job for seniors"; in-depth looks at the perils and pitfalls that await us as we get old - financial and physical abuse, sickness, frailty, dementia. It's not a happy story. He sees this negativity reflected in the nation's portrayal of the aging population in general - "sick, frail, in need of care and getting ready to bust the federal budget".

After decades of this worthy, yet bleak work, he realized that these problems weren't that satisfying, and in fact were missing much of the more positive aspects about older people. Unfortunately there weren't any grants - his lifeblood as an academic -  for positive stories, but undeterred he set off on a 5 year quest to interview over a thousand people over 65 and ask for their lessons to the younger generation, which he compiled into a book: 30 Lessons for LivingHe did this with a realization that the numbers of people who had survived World War II, and therefore had fascinating life lessons to share, were fast dwindling and would be gone within a decade. In the process of his research he learned a lot about the human condition, happiness, and helped answer many of the questions he had been asking about himself as he looked towards the coming grey area that he had been studying all his life.

Dr. Pillemer gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk last Thursday at the charming (and new to me) Academi (sic) of Life in Upper West Side, New York. In the talk he shared a few of the stories from the work, and did a heroic job of compiling over 65,000 years of experience into a few key takeaways.

Cutting to the chase (this is New York, after all), is Live Life Like It's Short. But there's much more to it than that. One of the satisfying things is the way that many of the lessons learned by a variety of people with different experiences and many problems corresponded to fundamental common sense ideas that we've heard all our lives - seize the moment, enjoy the journey, be honest, do things you love, find a hobby. But that said, this wasn't about clichés, it was about savoring the morsels of wisdom filtered through millennia of collective intelligence.

The happiness U-bend

One of the most gratifying things to learn, for those in middle age worried about growing old, is that everything is almost certain to get better. Well, that's one of the famous findings about happiness - it decreases in middle age, and rises again as people get older. The Economist discusses it here, reproducing a fairly famous and heartening graph.

Source: The Economist, December 16, 2010

Explanations for this vary - it seems to be as much about the fact that most people with kids report lower happiness levels (in the short term, I'm sure in they long term they're grateful). Also, it seems that older people stop feeling the need to worry about things, but instead just enjoy life as it comes. They also, oddly, worry less about dying.

Good reasons to take their advice

Dr. Pillemer suggested three reasons why we should listen to the advice of the elderly. First, from a developmental perspective, they have a profound and intense sense of a limited time span, and are therefore able to focus on what really matters. One of the ways this manifests itself in happiness is a term called 'socio economic selectivity', which essentially means that older people "kick the jerks" out of their life, and just spend time with people they get on with. Radical thought. A second reason is because of the cohort of who they are, and what they've been through. Older people are the most credible experts available to us on how to live well through hard times, having coped with hardships that most of us can't imagine.

A third reason is because he found that the seniors tend to provide a refreshing counterbalance to what is often seen as perceived wisdom; for example they'll generally be outspoken conservatively in favor of the institution of marriage, a view no longer de rigeur in Western society, while they'll be more liberal than today's orthodoxy over something like a career - don't worry about paying the bills or working in a job you , rather "find something you love" was a common theme from the interviews.

Three key lessons


  • Life life it is short. "It goes by in a nano second, next thing I knew I was 100". Some key takeaways: Don't waste time, it's precious. Don't work for a boss you don't like. Say it now (people die before you're ready). Travel more. Chose experiences with people over things (chose that exotic trip over the kitchen remodel every time)

  • Happiness is a choice, not a condition. "Sooner or later you will realize that you have to take responsibility for your own happiness." Dr Pillemer related a touching story of a woman who had made a conscious choice to be happy, after two years of bone-crushing sadness at the loss of her 20-year old daughter in a plane crash. He pointed out that pretty much everyone over the age of 70 had lost people they loved, and suffered illness and pain, and yet they make the choice. He noted that the "happiness choice" often comes from a turning point - for example, someone dying. He said that younger people are happy BECAUSE of something, older people are happy DESPITE something. The main regrets of people he interviewed - "I wish i hadn't worried so much!". He says keep focused on the small things.

  • Aging is better than you think it is. In general, he found that people felt freer and clearer as they got older; the learned to "find the magic". A nice concept that one sparky older lady (late 80s) noted was, that she's "still in the race!". Despite having said this, it's important to "treat your body like you need it for 100 years", else you'll have a long time to live in pain.


Other takeaways:

  • Be social. A vital skill for enjoying aging was to be social. "Learn to be social - it's not good to be a loner. Don't give yourself time to get depressed." This is very much in line with Dan Buettner's main findings from the Blue Zones project, that social engagement, not diet or exercise is the biggest driver of long life.

  • Chose your mate carefully. Happiness with a spouse is (inevitably) a major factor predictor of overall happiness.

  • Say Yes to opportunities. They often don't come around again.

  • Endorse risk. Live larger, do more, dont be put in a box.

  • Sex didn't really come up much. Dr. Pillemer thought this was unlikely to be because the seniors were not willing to talk about (since they were happy to talk about another taboo subject, death). He thought that it just didn't feature that highly in people's top lessons for life for others.


The talk was followed by a Q&A session, that dug into a few of the issues more deeply.



  • I asked whether he'd come up with a set of definitions for seniors - a problem for developing a market, since people rarely know what customer demographic they're targeting, plus most terms are seen as negative. He acknowledged this was still an issue, saying he ended up using 'experts' quite a lot, as in life experts. Some felt that 'elders' was a term of respect and liked it. The duality of the group was raised - in line with Marc Freedman's The Big Shift, there are two groups - the 'young' old (or encore generation) of approximately 50-80 (who are healthy, and whom society needs to do a better job of making productive), and the 'old' old, those who are over 80  (and who society needs to do a better job of respecting and caring for). The discussion continues....

  • There was discussion about the defining factors of the cohort that you grow up in. It was pointed out that the millennial generation - the youth of today, are more like grandparents in many respects than their baby boomer parents. I expect most generations end up being different from their parents, but it seems there's some theory behind that.

  • Dr Pillemer made the point that society is rigidly stratified by age, a problem exacerbated by negative agist stereotypes (e.g. Grandpa Simpson). He noted the high prevalence of age 'homophily', where most people spend time with those of their own age. From my experience, I see America extreme in this regard (although fellow audience member Laura is a welcome counter example), whereas in Europe it's quite common for multi-generational families to live together (see MedCottage post for an entrepreneur looking to change that model).

  • Concern about how the baby boomers will get on as they enter old age - this group will have fewer intact marriages and fewer kids, resulting in much more social isolation. As such, society will need to develop new structures of support.

  • The next steps for this project are to get funding to do a similar one in other countries, starting with Spain who are already interested.



Dr. Pillemer also mentioned a charming phenomenon - the 'aging flash mob' in Union Square, hosted by Tuesday's at 4, who organize intergenerational meetups based out of The Hallmark in Battery Park City, New York:



[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wuptqo31KiQ]


In sum, 30 Lessons is a charming book which is written in the spirit of a self-help book, but backed up (unusually for the genre) with reams of robust academic research.


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