Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. According to this standard, the 70-year-old life experts I’m going to discuss below have earned this designation 40 times over. Nobody can argue with that kind of experience, but it only matters if it makes you more effective than a lot of other people, right?
So what is the verdict, are older people better at life? If your definition of a good life is one that is filled with happiness and contentment, then the answer appears to be yes. Older people are happier than any other age group, and they continue to get happier as they age. The phenomenon looks a little something like this:
I first came across this chart in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. It is sort of funny that happiness declines steadily as people’s children age, dropping to its lowest point right before kids leave the house, but that is beside the point. Look what happens from age 52 on (once those pesky teens leave the house); happiness goes on a growth tear breaking all previous records at age 70, and continues to post solid gains every year after that.
Can someone please fast forward to age 70 for me please? Just kidding. The point is that older people know how to live a happy life, and we can probably learn a lot from their experiences.
Lessons for Living from 1,500 of America’s elderly experts:
Enter the cheat sheet, Karl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Living. Karl Pillemer is a professor at Cornell University that founded The Legacy Project. The Legacy Project asked 1,500 wise elders the following question:
What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?
The New York Times summarized some of the main findings. Here are the ones that stood out to me:
- Choose a career that you enjoy rather than one that makes a lot of money.
- Travel is so rewarding that you should do it when you are young rather than wait until you are old.
- Spend time with your kids, even if you have to make financial sacrifices to do so.
- Marry someone with the same basic goals and values; keep that marriage healthy through friendship, commitment, communication, and compromise.
- As you age, stay engaged. Maintain social contacts and take the opportunity to learn new things.
- Happiness is a choice about how you respond to things that you can’t control. Choose to be joyful.
Such wholesome advice. I’m struck by how much money is deemphasized. Experiences, family, relationships, and a fulfilling career all take precedence over financial success. It isn’t exactly surprising, but it is a welcome reminder that money is a means to an end, not an end in itself, particularly on the career side where there is so much pressure sometimes to be “successful” on society’s terms.
Notice what isn’t on the list of things to sacrifice/spend money on: stuff. A bigger house, a fancier car, a glamorous wardrobe. These findings are very similar to other positive psychology research findings. Namely, that you should choose experiences over things and that the bulk of controllable happiness comes from quality relationships with family and friends.
This advice might seem a little out of place on a blog that is sometimes so narrowly focused on money, but on closer inspection it fits perfectly with my mission: spend well. The goal is to spend time and money in the way that maximizes happiness, and here is a perfect roadmap for how to make that happen.
Recently, I wrote about pretirement, about moving to a less demanding, more enjoyable part-time career so that I could spend more time with (yet to be conceived) kids. Through the lens of The Legacy Project, this seems like a really good idea. I’ve also been debating whether or not to spend money on a last hurrah kind of travel experience before my wife and I start bringing more flannel plaid into this world. And again, the evidence points away from the “smart” money decision to the one that arguably will produce more lasting happiness (barring a vengeful South American Montezuma).
The final word:
All-in-all this is some pretty valuable and easy-to-understand advice from America’s wisest, happiest demographic. Life doesn’t have to be a confusing school of hard knocks, ye take heed and listen!
It is tempting to present these kinds of articles in a non-controversial, easily understood and applicable way, but the more I think about this post, the more I want to add a few critical comments. For me, this isn’t the happiness gospel; it is just a piece of the puzzle.
Our grandparents have a lot of good stuff to share, but we’re also young and have a lot to contribute as well. Do you go to your grandpa for internet lessons?? (haha!) Okay, so that was a little hyperbolic, but my point is that we should take this advice with a little healthy skepticism.
First off, and I really should have mentioned this in the original, happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert, whom I mentioned above, is pretty skeptical of people’s memories. Memories aren’t reliable; it is more accurate to say they are reconstructions of the past. And a lot of times, in the course of reconstructing, we misattribute the causes of our happiness / sadness and maybe even our emotional states themselves. This is why one of Gilbert’s main pieces of advice is to ask somebody how they feel now versus how they felt in the past. Are you thinking of becoming a parent? Ask a current parent what it is like; don’t ask someone that doesn’t have kids in the house anymore (their memory will trick them).
Okay, so there is one grain of salt. The other grain of salt is that maybe you have to earn your happiness, and there aren’t any shortcuts. You know, like “no pain, no gain.” There might be something to all the inevitable hard knocks of life that desensitizes you a bit and makes you appreciate the small stuff in a way that would be a lot harder had you not had those challenging experiences. There is a limit to this line of thought, but I’m not ruling it out. A similar argument might be that the brain simply changes with age, regardless of experience.
And finally, to cast a little more uncertainty on the subject, it would be impossible for everybody in the world to apply this career advice. Not everyone can be a National Geographic photographer; if everyone did what they loved, there would be a lot of crappy but necessary work that never got done. Imploring people to do what they love can be sort of disrespectful to the people that have to do the dirty jobs that nobody else does. Jacobin Magazine argues that “do what you love” is sort of elitist because only a certain class of people has the luxury of making that decision. New York Times also has some interesting commentary on the subject.
I think a better way of interpreting the career advice is simply to stay away from jobs that you really really hate, and also to try to find a little playfulness and joy in whatever job you have. The job itself maybe doesn’t need to be great, but hopefully you can still find a reason to whistle while you work.
I don’t mean to imply that these 1,500 experts are wrong, just that the advice isn’t universally applicable, and actually it is probably geared more towards people with a certain amount of privilege and/or security. I’m still going to chase my dreams, but I recognize the privilege of being able to make such a choice.
So all-in-all, I don’t mean to completely dispel what is undoubtedly an amazing amount of experience and wisdom, I just want to reiterate that, at least for me, this is simply another data point to consider for how to live the good life, not the singular key to a treasure chest of happiness.