Seniors Offer Wise Ways to Achieve Best Lives

Year-end looks at our lives are an opportunity to go beyond financial challenges to enduring human values.

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Everyone has their own yardstick for evaluating their lives. Inches and feet are replaced with life goals and achievements. Whatever your yardstick looks like, the odds are that you will use it during the year-end holidays. Good luck on your annual check-up.

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It's certainly true that 2011 has been a tough year for material achievements. Measures of well-being—income, home values, and wealth—have eroded for most of us. Jobs and careers have been put on hold if not set back. Consumer confidence is shaky and the consensus economic outlook for 2012 is for a little bit of growth and a lot of uncertainty.

Despite this cloudy if not stormy forecast, it turns out, very little of the "math" used to evaluate human lives has anything to do with money or career achievements. The environment in which we live certainly helps define the playing fields and conditions of our lives. But it need not define how we deal with those realities or, in the final measurement, how successful our lives have been.

The vantage points and wisdom of older people has been the focus of an ongoing effort by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In columns published on Oct. 27, Nov. 24, and Nov. 28, Brooks invited people over the age of 70 to write him a self-analysis of their lives and of the lessons they'd learned that perhaps might help other people. He called it The Life Reports. Over the past several weeks, Brooks has written about those responses and shared individual stories in a series of blog posts. They are worth reading, and contain some terrific insights.

In a similar vein, Cornell University professor and gerontologist Karl Pillemer began in 2004 to pull together life lessons from older Americans. Since then, he and colleagues have pulled together some 1,500 sets of views about life's most important lessons. They have been assembled into what he calls The Legacy Project. (There are several online Legacy Projects about diverse topics; Pillemer's is located on the Cornell website.) Pillemer calls his correspondents "elders." He has arrayed their advice across topical categories, in what are called Lists for Living, and, more recently, in a book called 30 Lessons for Living.

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There is a lot of overlap between Brooks' The Life Reports and Pillemer's The Legacy Project. Clearly, these stories have a positive bias. Unhappy and depressed people tend not to clamor to share their life stories with strangers. Having said that, it's clear that the most important lessons people want to share with others is that material possessions don't matter as much as the bonds that people forge with family and friends. Also, for all the ink given to longevity gains, life is over in a flash. Bouts of navel-gazing and feeling that it's necessary to always find someone to blame for every unfair moment are, from the perspective of the elders, a colossal waste of our time on earth.

In these respects, the themes that emerge from these stories closely track the dominant lessons of positive psychology. Traditional psychology looks for ways to counter the sources of human dysfunction, depression, and unhappiness. Positive psychology, its adherents say, flips the coin and seeks ways to understand what makes people happy, and how to reproduce those conditions.

I confess to being leery of any self-help mantra that promises to make me feel better. But there is lots of behavioral research to support the notion that it is possible to build more fulfilling lives by changing the way we respond to our challenges and life experiences. The common techniques for doing so read a lot like the life lessons that older Americans have shared with Brooks and Pillemer.

[See 8 Ways to Manage a Longer Life.]

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and the author in 2007 of The How of Happiness. She presents tips for implementing a dozen happiness activities that, she maintains, have been shown by behavioral research to help people lead happier and more fulfilling lives:

Expressing gratitude.

Cultivating optimism.

Avoiding overthinking and social comparison.

Practicing acts of kindness.

Nurturing social relationships.

Developing strategies for coping.

Learning to forgive.

Increasing flow experiences. ("Flow is a state of intense absorption and involvement with the present moment," Lyubomirsky wrote. Whatever the activity, people get caught up in the flow of what they're doing.)

Savoring life's joys.

Committing to your goals.

Practicing religion and spirituality.

Taking care of your body.

"Working on how to become happier, the research suggests, will not only make a person feel better but will also boost his or her energy, creativity, and immune system, foster better relationships, fuel higher productivity at work, and even lead to a longer life," Lyubomirsky said.

Seem too good to be true? Maybe, but what's to lose?

Twitter: @PhilMoeller