Over the course of six years, I’ve conducted studies designed to tap the practical wisdom for living of the oldest Americans. Using a nationally representative survey and in-depth interviews, I invited older people (mostly age 70 and above) to tell me what younger people should do – and not do – to live happier and more fulfilling lives.
I especially loved it when the elders were definitive. In some domains of life, they sometimes responded: “On the one hand… but on the other hand…” In other cases, however, they were definitive and unequivocal.
So it was when we asked over 1200 elders what they would recommend to younger people looking for ways to make the most of their lives. Many focused on this single action:
As they reflected on their lives, I heard many versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a “do-over,” they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting needlessly over future events that never happened. Their advice is straightforward: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime.
John Alonzo, 83, was a typical example. He didn’t mince words: “Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.” That was his major life lesson: stop worrying.
Most of us would agree – but what should we do to reduce pointless worry? Fortunately, elders offered practical solutions. Based on long experience, they suggest the following worry-reduction strategies that have worked for them – ones they believe will work for younger people, as well.
Focus on the short term rather than the long term
The elders suggest that you avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and focus instead instead on the day at hand. Eleanor, age 102, told me: “I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, ‘This too will pass.’ You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. So the most important thing is one day at a time. You can plan ahead but it doesn’t always work out.” Focusing on the more immediate moment relieves pointless worry, many elders reported.
Instead of worrying, prepare
The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning that greatly reduces worry. It’s the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them. Joshua, 77, summed up the consensus view: “If you’re going to be afraid of something you really ought to know what it is, at least understand why. Identify it. I’m afraid of X. And sometimes you might have good reason. That’s a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.”
Acceptance is an antidote to worry
The elders know about the futility of worry, because they have been through the process many times: Worrying about an event, having the event occur, and experiencing the results. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and preparing as worry-reduction strategies, many of the respondents recommend actively working toward acceptance.
Hannah, 97, lost her family to the Nazis but developed a highly successful career as a businesswoman while raising a family. Looking aback over her life, her advice was similar to that of many of the 1200 elders in the study:
Learn that life is good. You have to learn from the problems or the problems overcome you. I’ve learned a lot about life and nothing bothers me anymore. And it gets to be so, and it’s just the way it is. Acceptance, yes. If you don’t accept it you go down the drain. Be calm, go with the flow. How else can you live? Life is short, you have to be open-minded. Very open minded, learn to accept instead of worrying, then you will be okay.
Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that accomplishing this lesson may seem very challenging. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. Psychologists note that worry – ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us – is different from concrete problem-solving. The elders suggest you spend time on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminate time spent worrying. Given the challenges they have experienced over long lives, it’s advice worth taking.
For more information on the The Legacy Project, please visit the blog: http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu, like The Legacy Project on Facebook, and follow author Karl Pillemer on Twitter. This 6-year project led to the book: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, published by Hudson Street Press in November 2011.