top of page

30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer

"You will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. Why in the world would I be unhappy? People here complain all the time, but not me. It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, right here, today.”

A great book to learn about life. The author, Karl Pillemer, interviewed many elders in America who all shared their life stories and life lessons. The topics include: career, marriage, parenting, getting old, living a regret-free life, and happiness. A lot to learn from and I remember very well that most of the “experts” - Karl refers to the elderly people he interviewed throughout his book as the experts due to their life experience – all talked about one thing they would do less if they could go back in time is not worry so much. I think about this a lot from time to time when I am worrying and I’ve concluded that although a great idea to keep in mind, it is still much easier in theory than it is to apply in practice. Even when I know I am going to regret worrying later on because I know whatever I'm worrying about is going to pass by as something that isn’t as worrisome as it should be at that particular moment, I still sometimes can’t help but worry.



The refrigerator list of lessons for a successful married life:

1. Marry someone a lot like you. 2. Friendship is as important as romantic love 3. Don’t keep score 4. Talk to each other 5. Don’t just commit to your partner – commit to marriage itself

I asked hundreds of older Americans what is most important for a long and happy marriage, and their advice was just about unanimous: opposites may attract, but they may not be the best for lasting marriages…. Based on their long experiences both in and out of love relationships, their first lesson is this: you are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar.

Entering into a marriage with the goal of changing one’s partner is a fool’s errand, one that will doom the marriage before it starts.

[A 72 year old man who was married for 13 years advised this to young people], “I would say get to know the person well and don’t marry very young. I married too young, and in retrospect it would have been better for me and I would have been happier if I had been a little bit older and had a stronger sense of myself. I thought that I could make some changes in the person that I married, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that.”

In interviews with the experts, a very common response to the question “What’s the secret to a long, happy marriage?” was essentially, “I married my best friend.” Similarly, from those whose marriages did not succeed, I often heard, “Well, we were good at love, but we never learned how to be friends.”

[Nicole’s] most important lesson from a half century of married life is this: You have to be friends first – that’s what I didn’t know – and you have to be willing to work on it. When we got married forty-nine years ago, it was the thing to do by the time you were twenty.

Today that’s not the case. And I have a lot of respect for young people who wait until they’re twenty-five, thirty years old because the world is so different. We have spoken to young couples and we tell them, “You have to be good friends first and respect each other. Love comes and it grows if you are friends for one another.”

Marriage is not a fifty-fifty situation. It sometimes can be 90 percent to 10 percent. It depends on the situation. You have to keep giving a lot. You have to understand where the other person is coming from – put yourself in his or her shoes. And you have to have peace in the family. So you just decide, well, okay, this is it. You give in. And I’ve learned this through experience. There are times when you give and times when he gives – you can’t sit around counting up who gets what.

For long term success, couples have to orient themselves to giving more than they get. If both partners engage in the relationship with the goal of offering more to their partner than they receive, both benefit immensely.

Where is communication most important? The experts agreed that one thing all couples need to do – if they want to remain married as long as the experts have – is learn to communicate about conflicts. More specifically, we all need to learn how to fight. Fights are inevitable; it’s how we handle them that matters.


The Refrigerator list for finding satisfying work and making the most of a career:

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones 2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy 3. Make the most of a bad job 4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind 5. Everyone needs autonomy

The view from the end of the life span is straightforward: time well and enjoyably spent trumps money anytime…But they also know firsthand that most people who decide on a profession because of the material rewards at some point look back and grasp, “What have I done?”

But the experts concur that it’s vastly preferable to take home less in your paycheck and enjoy what you are doing rather than live for the weekends and your three weeks (if you get that much) vacation a year. If doing what you love requires living with less, for the experts that’s a no-brainer.

No one – not a single person out of a thousand – said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one – not a single person – said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success. No one – not a single person – said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

One important thing for young people is to be observant. No matter what the task is, whether you like it or not, it’s very important to learn everything you can about what’s happening around you. You never know when that may be of great value later. I’ve had many different experiences throughout my life where I really didn’t like what I had to do and I would feel what I was doing was inconsequential. But the lessons I learned doing those things played an important part in my life. For example, I had to work my way through college, in many what you may consider meaningless jobs. Later on they were very valuable for me as an employer, to help me understand my people. I would tell younger people that no matter what the experience is – learn. See what’s happening.

What about when you are in a job you find hard to do? How can you benefit from it? Be aware of every opportunity there is for learning. Be aware, know what is happening. The goal in the job is to continually learn. No matter what job we have, we will learn something that we will use later in life.

[The experts] consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant – you must have interpersonal skills to succeed. Many young people today are so focused on gaining technical expertise that they lose sight of this key to job success: traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolves conflicts are fundamentals in the workplace.

When it comes to evaluating your career, the experts collectively arrived at this kind of diagnostic test again. You should ask yourself this: do I wake up in the morning looking forward to work?


The refrigerator list:

1. It’s all about time 2. It’s normal to have favorites, but never show it 3. Don’t hit your kids 4. Avoid a rift at all costs 5. Take a lifelong view of relationships with children

Bonnie Gilbreath, sixty-seven, was emphatic: “You have to do two things: first you’ve got to love the child so that you want the child to succeed, then you’ve got to listen to what the child is saying about what he wants to do. I might have lost my temper once or twice and given one or the other a shake, but that’s one thing my husband and I tried never to do if we could help it. That’s not love, no matter what people say.”

I’ve sifted through thousands of detailed interviews about child rearing. Among mothers, fathers, and children alike, one clear and compelling insight emerges from the many accounts of permanent separation from a child: do everything you can to avoid the rift. The word “rift”, when applied to the social world, is defined as rupture in relationships resulting in personal separation.

Tip 1. See the potential rift early and defuse it. Tip 2. Act immediately after the rift occurs Tip 3. When all else fails, it’s the parent who usually needs to compromise.

When you are in your later years, you are likely to have one simple desire regarding your children: that they like you and wish to be around you. According to the experts, actions that get in the way of that future should be vigorously avoided.

Getting Old

The refrigerating list for not worrying about aging

1. Being old is much better than you think 2. Act now like you will need your body for a hundred years 3. Don’t worry about dying – the experts don’t 4. Stay connected 5. Plan ahead about where you will live (and your parents too)

The experts’ basic message about aging is one of the most counterintuitive recommendations in this entire book: don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.

First, many experts described later life as embodying a serenity, a “lightness of being,” a sense of calm and easiness in daily life that was both unexpected and somewhat difficult to describe.

Here’s the core of the lesson: it’s not dying you should worry about – it’s chronic disease. When most of us think about how our current behaviors will affect us later on, the experts say our focus is all wrong. We’re thinking about death, when we should be thinking about disease.

What you do when you’re young will hunt you up when you get old.

My frank and open conversations with the experts about the end of life did not reveal an underlying terror but instead curiosity, acceptance, and a desire to “prepare for the journey” ahead.

Research shows that social connectedness, in the form of meaningful roles and satisfying relationships, is strongly related to psychological and physical health…. Other studies have found that socially isolated and lonely older people are more likely to develop health problems and are less likely to engage in good health behaviors.

The experts never give up. They run, they climb, and instead of fighting aging with gimmicks and expensive medical procedures, they accept and adapt. It’s an approach that leads to fulfillment instead of frustration, and it’s something everyone who is aging (that’s all of us) should learn.

Living A Regret Free Life

The refrigerator list for regret reduction:

1. Always be honest 2. Say yes to opportunities 3. Travel more 4. Choose a mate with extreme care 5. Say it now

Avoid doing something you’re not passionate about.

The experts agree on one thing: [marriage] is probably the most important decision a human being makes. And yet, looking back over their own experience and observing many others, their view is that we are not careful enough. They assert that people tend to do one of three risky and possibly disastrous things. First, they can fall passionately in love and commit immediately. Romeo-and-Juliet-style (and look how that turned out). Second, they can (especially as they reach their mid-thirties) commit out of desperation, for fear that no one better will come along. Third, they can drift or fall into marriage without the choice or its reasons ever becoming clear.

Whether it is an impulsive move, a perceived last-chance leap, or a slide into the inevitable, their advice is to stop, look, and listen. Question the decision, then question it again. Or you may be in for deep and serious regrets.

These elders typically attributed the failure of the marriage to not making the time and effort to gain a deep knowledge of their partner before marrying. This is what they urge the rest of us to avoid: marrying the wrong person. As Phyllis Morton, seventy-eight, said bluntly, “It is better to not marry than to marry the wrong person. Both my husband and I were married once before and it took that experience to learn this lesson. We both learned it, and we’re happy now.

The one thing I regret is that I didn’t tell her how much I loved her as much as I should have. And I didn’t really realize that until I lost her. So I want to tell people to express themselves.

I want to share a secret: “regret-free living” is a bit of an exaggeration. I really do believe that aspiring to a life free of regrets is a worthwhile goal that can help us make better decisions on a daily basis. But there’s one more thing the experts know: for most of us, this goal is unrealistic. So they have another lessor for you: go easy on yourself regarding mistakes and bad choices you have made. A person with no second thoughts about anything he or she has done is probably someone who hasn’t taken many chances in life (something actually worth regretting).


The refrigerator list to live the happiest life possible:

1. Time is of the essence 2. Happiness is a choice, not a condition 3. Time spent worrying is time wasted 4. Think small 5. Have faith
What older people have that younger people do not is this: the profound existential awareness that each of our lifetimes is limited.

[The experts] believe that individuals can change and influence their own attitudes in spite of external stresses and even tragedy. And they argue that it is a tremendous mistake to wait for external events to “make” you happy. This “happiness in spite of” perspective of the elders provides us with some of most hopeful news possible about making the most of life.

It’s a fact that life will hand us problems and difficulties – if that hasn’t happened to you yet, you’re lucky (and probably very young).

The elders overwhelmingly believe that each of us can choose to be happier and that we can do so in the face of the painful events that inevitably accompany the process of living.

The experts see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Most important, they view worrying as a waste of time. Recall that they see time as our most precious resource. Worrying about events that may not occur or that are out of our control is viewed by them as an inexcusable waste of our precious and limited lifetime.

When people seek happiness, they often think about big-ticket items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. By now we have seen that from the viewpoint of America’s elders, this attitude is a mistake. The lure of being happy if only something in the future happens is, in their experience, a trap and one that some of them realized only when their lives were nearly spent.

Because of their limited time horizons, the experts have become attuned to the minute pleasures that younger people often are only aware of if they have been deprived of them: a morning cup of coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio (all pleasures mentioned in my interviews).

From a workaholic college professor in an interview, “I certainly feel that in my own life I have been too future oriented. It’s a natural inclination – of course you think about the future, and I’m not suggesting that that’s bad. But boy is there a lot to be gained from just being able to be in the moment and able to appreciate what’s going on around you right now, this very second.

Take nothing for granted, our elders tell us, because you can never be sure of the future.

Over and over, interviewees told me that a fulfilling life without faith of some kind is for them a contradiction in terms. For many, faith is like a second nature; even describing why it is so important is difficult because it is so close to the core of their belief system – indeed to the core of their very being. Before going any further, however, let me offer a minority report. There are perfectly happy experts for whom religious faith has no importance whatsoever.

bottom of page