What do those in their 60s, 70s and beyond know about living a fulfilling life that too often escapes the understanding of younger minds? Hoping to tap into this wealth of wisdom, I surveyed men and women ranging in age from 60 to 83 years.
What follows are insights from their joys and sorrows, mistakes and triumphs, and decades of witnessing the delicacy of each moment and impermanence of each change.
What do you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were younger?
Laughing a lot is not only OK, but highly recommended.John, age 63
Connect with others
An overwhelming number of respondents emphasized the importance of developing strong social ties. From investing in relationships with family and friends to finding a life partner with common interests, it’s clear that having a network of individuals on whom you can rely is key to sustaining happiness.
• “I have known for a long time, but I know even better now, that happiness is knowing that you are loved and that you have people that you love and trust in your life. I am blessed with an excellent husband who is the love of my life and we are both blessed with friends and family that are truly special to us.”
• “Connections, in the sense of developing friendships, loving friendships, invigorate me to this day – friends with whom I’ve shared humor, pain, excitements and interests. Friends that will last, forever.”
Define your own success
While it’s natural to measure our standing by material means, respondents appeared to agree that happiness doesn’t necessarily follow worldly success, with one respondent noting, “The way success is measured in our society isn’t necessarily the true measure.”
Instead, they cited the benefits of volunteering, engaging in hobbies, such as gardening and reading, giving back to others and finding work you truly love.
• “Find out what gives you joy and work at it.”
• “Do your best to be happy and to at least once a day do something for others.”
• “The ways of the world never gave me lasting peace or contentment. These days I value faith, family and friendship that is deeply rooted and grounded in love.”
Count your blessings
Recent research has uncovered the difference that expressing gratitude can have on our overall well-being, from improving our physical and psychological health to increasing empathy and reducing aggression.
Many respondents echoed the value of making the most of what you have while highlighting the importance of not worrying.
• “You do the best you can with the cards that you’re dealt. Happiness is what you make it.”
• “Be grateful for what you have. People and property.”
• “I would have to say that I spent a lot time when I was younger worrying about things that I thought would happen in the future. I always thought about negative things happening. Now I look at the positive side of things by saying to myself maybe something bad will happen but maybe it won’t. I have been able to do so much more and enjoy my life so much more by being positive instead of negative.”
Slow down and savor
Not having enough time is a common complaint, but how often do we use each of our hours the way we intended? As one respondent noted, “It’s difficult to comprehend how precious time is when younger.” Growing older seems to foster a permission to slow down, a tall order in a society that regularly encourages us to move faster and work harder.
Several respondents beautifully captured the delight of savoring simple pleasures and invoking the peace and contentment of quiet contemplation.
• “Spending time in quiet contemplation every day helps dissolve the chaos.”
• “Less is more, and the truth is found in stillness.”
• “You learn to pay attention to those small moments in life that make each life unique. You may not feel good about the image and health changes that are obvious both to you and others, but your appreciation of little joys, little moments, little treats to your Spirit, like the song of birds when they are waking up at 4 a.m.-ish, does for the better as you get older.”
Listen to yourself
It’s not always easy to tune out the critical voices of others. but doing so might become more natural as we age. Several respondents reflected on the freedom of following your instinct, offering forgiveness and releasing yourself from the opinions of others.
• “I care less about what other people think of me. I like who I am.”
• “Not to judge, observe instead. Not to blame, take responsibility instead and move on. Forgive, especially yourself.”
• “Trust in the universe and all that is life-giving. Do not worry about money, what people think of you, be yourself totally.”
What is the hardest life lesson you’ve learned?
“Life is not fair, but life is good!”Anonymous, age 83
From untimely losses and broken hearts, to regaining one’s trust and watching your children leave the nest, life is uncertain, unpredictable and at times unrelenting. One respondent reflected, “I grew up in a concentration camp and saw many people die when I was 3 to 6 years old. From the time I was 7 to 12 years old we had escaped, but people were conditioned to expect the worst in others. We have to change before others will recognize and respond.”
Some respondents reflected on the pain of severed family ties, while others drew on life’s fleetingness and the power of surrendering to what you cannot control.
• “The hardest lesson for me has been finding that not all people are good or worthy of trust. This is even possible with someone you have trusted.”
• “No matter how you try, you are never going to change another person.”
• “I will quote St. Teresa of Calcutta: ‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.’”
• “Never take anyone or anything for granted especially in marriage or other relationships; they need constant care and attention and open discussion.”
• “I have to put forth real and hard effort to stay active. Being inactive is easy but dangerous.”
• “Questioning and accepting change are essential to coping. Questioning myself and situations is usually a good thing to do when done with thoughtful integrity and when ready to accept the truth. Holding on to old bad habits by using false rationale is so easy. Easy is not always the best path to happiness.”
Here’s more wisdom from the seniors we talked to:
• “Death is an integral part of life; it completes the circle.”
• “You cannot change the past, so let go of regrets and anger. Live for today, but consider your future.”
• “Life is not ‘yours’ to own, it’s a gift to savor, provided from an undefine-able, unknowable by humans, source of some ‘higher intelligence.’”
• “That everything that I have experienced in my life, both good, and what some might consider ‘bad’, was chosen by me and always has the potential for goodness, if I open my mind and heart to that truth.”
• “The importance of lifelong learning. There is always more to learn and discover about ourselves and others.”
• “Be kind to people. This is my religion and the Dalai Lama’s: Be kind to yourself first and then others.”
• “How to say goodbye when a child dies. How to go on living a peaceful life.”
How Would You Like to be Remembered?
“With a smile and a laugh.”Melinda, age 79
In reflecting on how they would like to be remembered, many respondents drew on qualities such as kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity. Nearly all expressed a desire to serve, be it through gathering friends around the dinner table or making others laugh. Perhaps by regularly reflecting on the imprint we hope to leave on the world and those around us, we can become the versions of ourselves we most desire to be.
• “Calm problem solver.”
• “As a unique individual who left a small carbon footprint.”
• “As someone who has made a difference or impact, even if only a small one.”
• “I believe my spirit is already imprinted in the minds of those with whom I have interacted. The impression I have left on those is connected to who I have been to them: a mother, grandmother, a hugger, a lover, a friend, an advisor or even someone I hardly knew. I have been touched and have touched many people in these eighty years. I live there.”
• “As someone who was true to herself.”
However many trips you’ve taken around the sun, pause every now and then to notice the simple joys that surround you, the challenges you’ve overcome and the intricate array of moments that define your life’s unfolding.