Adjust the text

Study: Finishing With No Regrets


30 lessons for livingGerontologist Karl Pillemer and his team interviewed over 1,000 older Americans from different economic, educational and occupational backgrounds. Their goal was to discover what these older Americans had learned about life in the course of living it and what advice they had for the young. The study is part of the ongoing Cornell Legacy Project.

Dr. Pillemer is a professor of human development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and a gerontologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

He has summed up his research in 30 Lessons for Living (Hudson Street Press).

The elders covered topics from marriage to money. Here are some of their thoughts.


Choose your mate with extreme care. The secret is to choose someone like you – someone that shares your values and someone for whom you feel deep friendship as well as love.

"Think back to the playground when you were a kid," one elder suggested. "Your spouse should be that kid you most wanted to play with!"

If you want your marriage to be happy, don’t keep score. "Marriage is not a 50-50 situation," one 86-year-old woman said. "There are times when you give and times when he gives – you can’t sit around counting up who gets what."


To foster lifelong closeness with your children, spend time with them.

Seventy-nine year-old "Clayton Greenough" urged parents to go with their children’s interests and make them shared activities.

Be alert to any kind of permanent rift in your relationship, and defuse it quickly. "Rifts most often occur over matters that seem important at the time," the elders said. " But [they] are almost never worth the ultimate pain of separation."


"Find something you like to do and do it." On this point, the elders were clear. Not a single person out of a thousand advocated choosing a job based on its financial reward. "A sense of purpose and passion for one’s work beats a bigger paycheck any day." They admitted landing the right job could take time. Don’t give up. In the meantime, try to approach each job as a learning experience.

Life is short

Don’t wait until tomorrow to do the things you want to do. Some elders regretted putting off travel until it was too late.

"Donna Loflin", 78, offered this advice:

If you have to make a decision whether you want to remodel your kitchen or take a trip – well, I say, choose the trip! And travel when you’re young because your health allows you to do things that you can’t do when you get older. Material things, you can wait on those.

Choose happiness

"In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition," said one woman. "My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life."

"Mo Aziz", 75, echoed this advice: "You are not responsible for all the things that happen to you, but you are completely in control of your attitude and your reactions to them."

On aging

For many boomers turning 60 is a shock. The elders’ advice: "Embrace it. Don’t fight it."

Indeed, most elders said old age had exceeded their expectations: "I have found each decade, each age, has opportunities that weren’t there in a previous time," one woman said.

And 82-year-old "Henry David" touted less pressures on his time: "In retirement I’ve been able to participate in volunteer activities much more expansively than I could when I was younger, and I’ve enjoyed it hugely"

He added: "I work with historical societies and other organizations, and I have a lot of fun with it. You just are able to pull together a lot of strings that aren’t available to you at 20 years of age."

Elders with chronic illnesses stressed the capacity to enjoy small pleasures: "I feel a contentedness that I have never felt before," one 92-year-old woman remarked. "I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing."

Plan ahead for where you are going to live

The research suggests older adults often delay the decision to move until they have significant health problems, limiting their options.

Around 150 of the participants resided in senior living communities. Although many were initially reluctant, most described the move from their home to that location as one of the best decisions of their lives. Community living offered opportunities to explore new activities and enjoy new relationships.

Don’t worry about dying

Older adults said they think less about death now than when they were younger. Plan for it; let others know your wishes. And tidy up so your heirs won’t have to do it.