The Wisdom of Our Elders

This article originally appeared on Baltimore’s Child.

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.”

What else?

Here’s more wisdom from the seniors we talked to:

“The importance of lifelong learning. There is always more to learn and discover about ourselves and others.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.’”

How Would You Like to be Remembered?

“With a smile and a laugh.” – Melinda, age 79

Legacies

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.

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25 Days of Gratitude

As another year draws to a close, I’m called to reflect on what I’m grateful for. The autumn and winter seasons naturally evoke feelings of contentment and camaraderie as many of us gather with loved ones to celebrate the joys, growth, and milestones of months past.

No matter how your year has unfolded, take a moment to consider the reasons you have to say thank you. They could be as simple as having fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink or as significant as mending an estranged relationship, seeing your child graduate from college, or embarking on a new business venture.

Over the next few weeks, I invite you to join me in noting what you’re thankful for each day. If you already have an established gratitude practice, encourage a friend to follow suit. Check back often as I tally up the bundle of blessings this month has up her sleeve, and as the end of the year approaches, be present to the small graces that surround you.

Day 1: Waking up to warm cobbler.

Day 2: Cheerful notes from distant friends.

Day 3: Audiobook companions.

Day 4: Afternoon escapes.

Day 5: Loving communities of like-minded souls.

Day 6: Morning bright spots.

Day 7:

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An Insider’s Guide to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion gets a lot of buzz, and for good reason. Pioneered by Dr. Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the term refers to showing yourself the same care and kindness you’d show a close friend. If you find you’re often critical of your faults, have difficulty separating yourself from your negative thoughts when they arise, or feel like you’re alone in your struggles, practicing self-compassion can help.

In this post we’ll explore:

What self-compassion is (and what it’s not)

How self-compassion compares to self-esteem

The benefits of self-compassion

Tips for practicing self-compassion in everyday life

I’ll also share some handy online tools and exercises so you can practice what you’ve learned. So get cozy, grab a cup of tea, and let’s unpack these one by one!

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion arrived on the scene over a decade ago and has been growing in popularity and application ever since to be integrated with practices like mindfulness and meditation. To understand self-compassion, it’s helpful to think about compassion in general. The word compassion translates to “suffer with”, meaning that when you see someone in pain, your heart and mind are inclined to respond with sensitivity, caring, and warmth.

Showing compassion also encompasses being kind and understanding toward others when they make mistakes rather than judging them harshly. Finally, in being compassionate, we recognize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are inevitable and part of the universal human experience.

We all make mistakes. We all experience loss, illness, moments of failure, and fall short of the expectations we regularly set for ourselves. It’s easy to hope or expect that by simply being kind to ourselves, we can eliminate our frustrations and difficulties. However, the goal of self-compassion isn’t to make our problems disappear, but to be better equipped to see ourselves through them.

Self-compassion encourages us to recognize and respond to our own suffering with tenderness. When you face a challenge, experience a setback, or notice something you don’t like about yourself, instead of being dismissive of or critical toward your pain, you can gently turn toward it with a desire to comfort and care for yourself.

Let’s review the three core components of self-compassion:

Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment: Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate rather than suppressing our pain or turning on ourselves with self-criticism. When we’re able to accept that things won’t always go our way instead of becoming angry or turning away from our unpleasant circumstances, we can navigate the path ahead with greater emotional ease.

Common Humanity vs. Isolation: When we encounter frustration or difficulties, we often feel a sense of isolation, mistakenly believing that we’re alone in our experience. On the contrary, as human beings, we are each mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Showing ourselves compassion includes recognizing that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience and allowing ourselves to be comforted by this knowledge.

Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification: Self-compassion involves taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so we’re neither ignoring nor exaggerating our difficult feelings. This is achieved by (1) relating our personal experiences to those of others who are suffering, thereby putting our own situation into perspective, and (2) practicing mindfulness, or observing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and nonjudgmental awareness.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, take a moment to complete this quiz to see where you fall on the self-compassion scale. (Don’t forget to practice being kind to yourself no matter your results!)

What Self-Compassion is Not

One of the most common misconceptions about self-compassion is that it’s a form of self-pity. It’s helpful to remember that when we feel self-pity, we become consumed by our own problems and forget that there are others going through similar difficulties. Self-pity often emphasizes feelings of separation from others and makes our own concerns seem worse than they are. Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages us to consider how our experiences relate to others’ without the accompanying feelings of isolation and disconnect.

Another misconception about self-compassion is that it’s self-indulgent. Many people worry that by being compassionate with themselves, they’re letting themselves off the hook. For instance, if you curl up in front the TV with a pint of ice cream or a glass of wine after a hard day, it’s tempting to ridicule yourself for not sticking to your healthy eating habits or using your time more wisely. While such indulgences are typically harmless in small doses, they often don’t bring lasting relief. Showing yourself compassion means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long-term and this may involve making choices that are harder to stick to in the short-term (exercising, going to bed early, creating boundaries around leisure time.) When we’re motivated by compassion instead of shame, we’re more likely to make choices that promote growth and positive change while steering clear from self-condemnation.

Lastly, self-compassion is frequently misconstrued as being selfish. If you were raised in a family or culture that emphasized the importance of putting others’ needs before your own, it can be especially hard to reverse this tendency as an adult. Being compassionate toward ourselves doesn’t inhibit us from being there for others. In fact, the more preoccupied we are by our own imperfections, mistakes, and feelings of inadequacy, the less energy we have to devote to those we care about. Conversely, when we can be sensitive and nurturing toward our suffering, we’re able to better meet our emotional needs and give more of ourselves to serving others.

Before we explore how self-compassion differs from self-esteem, check out these tips for keeping a self-compassion journal!

What’s the Difference Between Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem?

Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, it’s actually quite different. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While low self-esteem can lead to feelings of depression or lack of motivation, trying to raise our self-esteem can also be problematic. In Western culture, self-esteem is typically determined by how much we stand out from others. As such, in order to feel good about ourselves, we seek to be perceived as “special” or above average. This may lead us to become self-absorbed or put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might even become angry or resentful toward those who potentially make us feel bad about ourselves. Finally, our self-esteem is often dependent on our latest success or failure, rising and falling with our ever-changing circumstances.

Self-compassion, in contrast, is not based on self-evaluations. We show ourselves compassion because all human beings are deserving of understanding and kindness, not because they possess a particular set of traits or have achieved certain milestones. This means that you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Moreover, self-compassion is not dependent on our latest achievements or accolades – it’s available to us no matter the condition of our lives. Research shows that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

Check out this article for further insights into the differences between self-compassion and self-esteem.

The Benefits of Self-Compassion

Dr. Neff has found that self-compassion has a significant positive association with:

Happiness

Optimism

Positive affect

Wisdom

Personal initiative

Curiosity and exploration

Agreeableness

Conscientiousness

Extroversion

It’s also been linked to reduced levels of anxiety and depression, and increased resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, and academic failure. For a jumpstart, check out these guided self-compassion meditations!

Tips for Practice

There are many ways to practice being kind to yourself each day regardless of the struggles you may be facing. While we can’t always control the difficulties that come our way, we can choose to recognize them as part of the bigger picture and show ourselves the same care and concern as we would a close friend in seeing them through.

Coin your self-compassion mantra: Develop a few phrases that you’ll repeat to yourself each time you’re caught up in a cycle of self-deprecation, hopelessness, defeat, or frustration. Try to incorporate the three core components of self-compassion (self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.) Here’s an example: “I wish you didn’t have to go through this. This is what it means to be human. It’s natural to feel sad right now and I’m here for you.”

Build self-compassion breaks into your day: Set aside 5 minutes each day (or more if you’re able) to check in with yourself and what you’re needing. It might be as simple as getting a breath of fresh air or reading positive affirmations, or you may find that you need something that requires more time and effort. Reach out to a friend, go for a run, make a favorite meal, or do a guided imagery exercise. Remember to focus on your long-term motivations rather than your fleeting urges.

Practice being present: It’s difficult to show ourselves affection when we’re caught up in worries about the future. Often the frightening scenarios that our minds are so clever at crafting never come to pass. When you feel yourself getting swept away by anxiety about what lies ahead, try doing a grounding exercise to reorient yourself with the here and now. Use your five senses to tune into your surroundings, noting what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Rather than trying to push your worrying thoughts out of your head, simply acknowledge them as manifestations of your mind and remind yourself that they can’t hurt you.

Avoid isolation: While it’s natural to want to keep to yourself when you’re going through a difficult time, doing so only compounds your present struggles by reinforcing the belief that you’re alone in facing them. Make an effort to be around others, even if it’s just immersing yourself in the aromas and activity of a busy coffeeshop. Spend time with a friend or loved one with whom you feel safe confiding. Try to limit the time you spend alone as this is often when our minds become busy with regrets about the past and fears about the future.

Embrace your imperfections: Above all, showing ourselves compassion requires acknowledging that we’re not perfect and neither are our lives. When you notice your self-critical voice kicking in, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself that to be human is to be flawed. Instead of allowing self-doubt to take hold, jot down five things you’re grateful for or five things you love about yourself. Pay attention to the impact this has on your perspective and how a simple shift in awareness can make a significant difference.

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Ask Yourself This Question Each Morning to Help Your Day Go More Smoothly

As the winter holidays approach, our days seem to move at an increasingly frenetic pace. Shopping lists are made, decorations are put out, online orders are placed, tables are set, and our lists are checked twice, hoping that we haven’t forgotten anything amidst the end-of-year hustle and bustle.

Repetition is a hallmark of holiday traditions. In honoring them year after year, we cherish their inception and fondly recall the mark they’ve made on our lives. The anticipation of what’s to come is what makes them both enjoyable and sacred. New traditions are formed as variations of the old and there’s a comfort in bringing together the familiar with the unestablished.

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