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Oldest Americans share lessons for living in new book


You hear it all the time– live life to the fullest and have no regrets. But are there set lessons that can help us live this kind of life? To find out, a Cornell University professor decided to speak to people nearing the end of their lives. He asked them to share any valuable lessons they have on everything from marriage, careers, to being happy.

“The idea behind the Legacy Project was to gather practical advice for living from the oldest Americans, who many have called the “Greatest Generation,” and put it in a way that will help young people live happy, successful lives, “says Karl Pillemer.

He says their unique historic experiences, including the Great Depression and World War Two, have taught them how to thrive in the face of adversity. Pillemer has boiled down what he’s learned from them into his new book, “30 Lessons For Living.”

When it comes to your career, he says their advice is to choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones. “They said you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and love what you’re doing,” he says. “If you work with someone you detest or have horrible working conditions, get out!”

When it comes to marriage, they say you don’t want to rush and you need to make sure you have things in common with your partner. If he’s a big spender, you have to be a big spender. If he’s thrifty, you need to be as well. He says you have to have the same core values or it won’t work.

As for your health, they advise eating healthy and avoiding smoking or junk food. The excuse that you don’t care how long you live so you can continue bad habits, doesn’t work out quite how you’d think, he says.

“What the oldest Americans know is that in your dreams you’re going to just drop dead. In fact, you’re going to sentence yourself to years of chronic illness because medical science is going to keep you alive,” he says.

Another lesson that becomes clear at the end of your life is that you should choose experiences over possessions. Many told Pillemer they wished they traveled more.

“They argued that younger people should sacrifice other things for travel because it’s so rewarding. As one woman said to me, if there were a choice between a kitchen remodel and some trips, take the trips.”

Over and over again, the interviewees, all over the age of 70, told him that happiness is a choice and not a condition. They argue that you can get up in the morning and choose to enjoy small things, savor what life has to offer. Pillemer says they think that your happiness is within your control.

Finally, he says there’s one thing that every single elderly person he interviewed practically shouted to him.

“Everyone who stands at the end of life says they can’t believe how short life is. As one 90-year-old told me, it passed by in a nano-second,” says Pillemer. “Invariably, from the end of life, you’re going to look back and think about how you used your time. You want to live life as though it’s short–because it is.”

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