[The] Legacy Project [is] a study of almost 1,500 people, ranging from their 70s to over 100, who shared their wisdom about life. [Cornell professor Karl Pillemer's] work resulted in the 2011 book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.” ...
His research began with a simple question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over your life?” ...
One unanimous refrain included just three simple words: Life is short. A retired engineer told Pillemer that “it passes in a nanosecond.” A 99-year-old woman said, “I don’t know what happened, but the next thing you know you are 100.”
That firm appreciation of life’s fleeting nature led to a list of surprising lessons for Pillemer and his research team. Though many survey participants had lived through hard economic times, instead of urging younger people to get steady, well-paying jobs, they consistently said, “Do something you enjoy.”
“Based on this extremely acute awareness of the shortness of life, everybody argued you should find work you love; work ought to be chosen for its intrinsic value, and for its sense of enjoyment, sense of purpose. And life was much too short to spend doing something you don’t like, even for a few years.”
Similarly, respondents surprised Pillemer when he asked them to name their biggest regrets. Instead of listing concerns like affairs, addictions, or shady business dealings, almost unanimously they answered: “I wish I had not spent so much time worrying.”
“The idea behind that again related to shortness of life. … The argument they make is that the mindless and ruminative worry over things one can’t control so effectively poisons life that it’s a waste of a precious lifetime.”
Another standout lesson from the survey involved the notion of being responsible for one’s own happiness. While it sounds like a cliché, said Pillemer, “It’s a critical part of their lived reality, and their argument is as follows: Younger people tend to be happy ‘if only’. … Their view from later life is that this has to morph into being happy in spite of things.
--Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette, on how to live