By Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D.,
A famous picture by Norman Rockwell shows beaming grandparents serving turkey to a crowd of smiling extended family members. This idealized image represents reality in this way: Thanksgiving is one event that traditionally brings the generations together. So what’s a good way to spend this precious intergenerational time?
Here’s one you may not have thought of: How about asking your older family members to give the younger ones advice for living? I’ve spent the past six years conducting a research project in which we asked older Americans: “What are the most important lessons you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to young people?” The results were fascinating, and yes, you can try this at home! So I’m proposing that we all use Thanksgiving to ask our family’s elders to share their wisdom.
Why try it? Because it’s an interesting and enjoyable thing to do. Younger people have a lot to gain by seeking the life wisdom of older people. We can take advantage of years of lived experience, perspectives that defy contemporary “common sense,” and experiential knowledge that comes from having been tested in almost every type of stressful situation. Have they been married for 50 years? Ask them what makes a marriage work. They raised a family, so ask them their advice for raising children. And don’t forget to ask their advice about aging well!
On this holiday, we can all be thankful that our elders are so full of wisdom, and willing to share. Below are some “conversation starters” to use around the dinner table this Thanksgiving. While you’re digging into your turkey and mashed potatoes, you can profit from the valuable lessons that those around you have have learned first-hand over their lifetimes.
1. What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
2. Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
3. As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
4. What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
5. What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
6. What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?
7. Have you learned any lessons regarding staying in good health?
8. What advice would you give to people about growing older?
I hope you will give these a try. We do sometimes ask older people for their life stories, but it can actually reach deeper and be more rewarding to ask them their advice for living.
This is how knowledge for living was once transferred; the experience of interlocking lives, intertwined over generations, was passed along and remained alive in the telling. This wisdom exists in people you know, right here, right now. And it’s your for the asking this Thanksgiving.
And if you learn something valuable from an elder, or your own family elders would like to share their advice, you can add it to our website and be entered for a chance to win $100 Amazon gift card, now through December 4th!
About the Author:
Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D – Karl Pillemer is a professor of human development at Cornell University and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College. An internationally renowned gerontologist, his research examines how people develop and change throughout their lives. He has authored five books and over 100 scientific publications, and speaks throughout the world on aging-related issues.
After a chance encounter with a remarkable 90-year old woman, Dr. Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. His quest led him to ask more than a thousand older Americans their advice for living. He asked about all the big issues – love, marriage, children, work, happiness, avoiding regrets.
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.
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.