Book Notes: 30 Lessons for Living

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

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]


– On marriage:  “you are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar [in your values].”

– Marriage is vastly more difficult with someone whose orientation and approach to life is different from yours.  The most important functional aspect of a marriage is similarity in core values.

– If trivial arguments consistently occur, then it’s probably an underlying difference in values.

– The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogamous (“similar”) in terms of economic background, religion, and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier.

– They agree:  finding someone who is similar in upbringing, general orientation, and values is the single most important component of a long and satisfying marriage.

– Your partner is unlikely to significantly change to suit you during a marriage.

– It should be noted that “change” in this context is essentially meant with regard to a partner’s core character – that is their core personality traits, core behavior traits, core intentions & core values. A person’s character in this sense – relative to their partner – is unlikely to change.

– You will have much greater success in changing your own feelings and behavior than in changing your partner’s.

Friendship Is as Important as Romantic Love:

– BE SURE THAT YOU’RE really good friends. That is the most important thing. All the romance and the bells and the whistles are all very nice, but their importance doesn’t last. Be sure that you’re very good friends.

– ROMANCE AND LOVE are not the same, a lesson that experience teaches you. Romantic love, from what I’ve seen, is an insufficient condition for a successful marriage. What is thought to be love, at the outset of a marriage, is generally a mirage, for love develops slowly in marriage and continues to do so throughout its life. [COMPANIONATE LOVE]

– The advantage of true cooperation: both individuals are contributing to a relationship, the benefits of which transcend immediate interests on a given day.

What couples must avoid— if they wish to remain together as long as the experts— is keeping score regarding who is giving/getting more and who is giving/getting less.

– You can be conscious of each individual’s contributions toward the relationship without keeping score.  Remain conscious and only become concerned if relationship contribution is significantly and undoubtedly skewed in one direction.  Otherwise, do not “keep tabs” or keep score, especially not for minor daily occurrences.

The 50/50 Fallacy:  this notion is self-explanatory.  No marriage is a 50-50 balance of energy.  Contribution levels will vary across situations and over time.  If you expect a 50/50 situation, you’re likely really expecting something more along the lines of an 80/20 exchange in your favor, as in you wish your spouse would do 80% of the lifting.  Check yourself, and realize there should be zero competition involved in relationship contribution.

  Give a little more, expect a little less.  If there’s any cure for relieving acute internal stress in a relationship, this is it.

– If a marriage gets to the point where you can’t discuss things, then you will have two unhappy people.  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.

– IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO LET SOME THINGS GO, to figure out what matters and what really doesn’t matter.

Don’t Just Commit to Your Partner— Commit to Marriage Itself.  This is primarily important to consider as it pertains to YOU accepting your partner as is. When you have grievances, remember this concept and apply – don’t preach it to your partner.

– Marriages are most often terminated because of one of these, or a combination of these, conditions:  1) Resentment (needs not being met)  2)  Disinterest (falling out of love, changing in opposite directions), or 3) Irreconcilable Differences (inability to function as partners)

Think of marriage as a life – as a living being.  Marriages all have problems and struggles, to varying degrees at various points in time, just as individuals do.  Marriage problems can be somewhat prevented and managed in the same way as individual problems.

– REMEMBER:  generally speaking, when it seems there’s a potential turning point – that critical moment after an intense argument when there’s a strong desire to abandon the relationship – if you stay and stick it out, your relationship will soon grow stronger.  Just “turn back” at that point, and you will be so happy with yourself in the long run.

The end of the day means the end of hostilities, the recognition that the underlying shared values and commitment to the relationship trump the need for one last dig or self-righteous justification.

– The view from the end of the life span is straightforward:  time well and enjoyably spent trumps money anytime.

– Recommendation:  make sure that if you are searching for purpose it includes others. Then the self will take care of itself.

– 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.

– The most successful among them learned how to take the most mundane and dreary job and transform it into a learning experience.

– . 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 would tell younger people that no matter what the experience is— learn.

– Believe that every situation is the learning experience you need at that time.

– I uncovered one underlying principle behind their emphasis on interpersonal skills: maintaining a healthy humility.

– When there’s a choice to look out a window or look in mirror, look out the window.

One of the experts attributes his success to a basic principle:  take yourself down a peg or two.

Take others seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously, otherwise you’ve got a problem.

– Based on their life experience, autonomy and flexibility are the keys to an enjoyable job, and the more freedom, the better off you are – lower pay is fine.  Look for maximum autonomy in a job, and work as hard as necessary to secure it.

– Isolated work is an illusion to be avoided.  Your job can be autonomous and flexible AND be connected to many people and environments.

– Ask yourself this:  do I generally wake up in the morning looking forward to work?

– IT WAS WITH THE HIGHEST INTENSITY that the experts wanted to tell younger people that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake. There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful. Over and over they prefaced their comments with, “If there’s one thing I want your readers to know it’s that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake.” From the vantage point of looking back over long experience, wasting around two thousand hours of irretrievable lifetime each year is pure idiocy.

– The almost universal advice included to love your children, to be careful about overindulging them (especially when it comes to consumer fads), and to firmly convey your moral and ethical values.

– What if out of the enormous muddle of child-rearing advice there was a “magic bullet”? What if there was one course of action you could take that would create loving relationships with your children, serve as an early warning system for problems they are having, and lead to a lifelong bond with them? According to the experts, there is: spend more time with your children. And if necessary, sacrifice to do it.

– This extra time spent with children should be interactive. Time spent with children is not simply being in the same room with them or just keeping an eye on them.  You want to be engaged in their experience as often as reasonably possible.

– In our hectic and driven society, parents look endlessly for programs, gimmicks, and therapies to improve their relationships with their children. But our expert elders tell us that there is one great contributor to lifelong closeness for which there is no substitute: your time.

– In the view of the experts, your kids don’t want your money (or what your money buys) anywhere near as much as they want you. Specifically, they want you with them, whether they realize it or not.

– Children want their parents’ time but they specifically want their parents’ mental presence in addition to their physical presence – basically, their attention. Kids generally don’t realize it at the time, but a parent’s full attention is what the child desires most. Moreover, kids want their parents to really try to relate to them exactly as they are. They don’t want to be parented – they don’t want more direction or monitoring. Rather, they want your patient interaction, respectful discussion, and open-minded acceptance for who they are at that point in time. [This is generally true and applicable for adult relationships as well.]

What you will regret at an elderly age is not having spent more time with your children. And it’s what your children will regret too.

– Time spent with children is critical for 1) Connectedness, and 2) An early warning system for emerging problems.

– The experts who missed out on spending time with their children regret it, and those who creatively manufactured time together regard it as the best decision they ever made.

– “Let me tell you. If your kids have a concert or a game, you should put aside whatever it is— if the house needs fixing up or the laundry needs doing, it’ll wait. It’s more important to devote your time to whatever they’re interested in. Otherwise you’re going to lose them. They’ll become strangers.”

– 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.  Thus, both pettiness and too-high expectations should be avoided at all costs to prevent resentment and dislike.

– Please resist one of the cardinal temptations of American parents: the search for perfection, both in our children and in our own parenting.

No one has perfect children. They all admit it: their kids had at least some difficulty, a flaw, a period of unhappiness, a major wrong turn. The reassuring thing is that most of their kids turned out pretty well nevertheless. The message is clear: abandon all thoughts of raising the “perfect child” or being the perfect parent, and do it as early as possible.

Don’t waste your time worrying about getting old. Old age is very different from what the experts anticipated— and it vastly exceeds their expectations.

– 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.

– With awareness, intention, and proper action this serenity and “lightness of being” can be embodied at a much younger age!

– For most, old age has been one of life’s greatest surprises: a time of greater opportunity and contentment than they had ever imagined. And this feeling cut across income and ethnic groups.

– People are so afraid of getting old – don’t worry about it!  It’s an adventure.

– I can’t underscore this message enough: the time you spend as a young person worrying about aging is truly wasted, because it’s likely to be much better than you expect.

– “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

– It’s not dying you should worry about – it’s chronic disease.

By making healthy lifestyle decisions as early as possible, you can to some degree control whether you spend the last decades of your life in healthy productivity and contentment or in a downward spiral of physical misery.

– A common attitude of the experts toward the end of life: a mix of interest, curiosity, and acceptance.

Research shows that social connectedness, in the form of meaningful roles and satisfying relationships, is strongly related to psychological and physical health.[Huge point, across all cultures and demographics.]

– The absence of social ties predicted dying among older persons, even when taking into consideration things like social class and health status. 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.

– It is very rare that social scientists agree on very much of anything, but here they do: Greater involvement in social roles and in networks of social support helps promote health and happiness in later life.

– ALWAYS reach out.  You do not want to become isolated.

– Make a conscious goal of staying connected. Maintain old ties and continue to build new ones.

Over and over they told me that the ultimate lesson about aging is “don’t fight it.” Instead they encourage all of us to accept the aging process and to adapt our activities to our changing physical abilities and circumstances.

– Social gerontologists have a term for this process: “Selective Optimization with Compensation.” People who age successfully select the activities they most value and optimize the returns they get from them. The compensation part means that people keep doing a favorite activity, but they adapt it so it fits with their abilities.

– Just think of activities and aging as, “Well, at least I can do this much.”

– The experts offered one prescription for regret-free living so unanimously (and so vehemently) that I’m going to preach it on their behalf. In connection with avoiding later-life remorse, one word was repeated again and again: “honesty.”

– Be honest above all.  If you’re honest with all the people around you, no matter what happens, you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and say, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” In other words, you’ve made the right decision if you’re honest.

One particular virtue was mentioned over and over again – honesty.  Just be respectfully honest.  If you present the facts as necessary – no more, no less – then you never have to be nervous.  The facts are what they are.  Withholding or distorting relevant facts when interacting with others generates anxiety and discomfort.

– Regarding work:  Say yes when you have an opportunity.  The experts who were happiest about their careers can point to a decision where they were tempted to say no, where staying the course was more comfortable and less risky, but they finally decided to give it a go.

On old age in general:  You are freer than you could ever imagine being.

If the choice is between travel and material things, choose travel.

– The injunction that I’d like to offer to young people is this: be very, very careful about the selection of a life partner and look well beyond the near horizon and as far into the future as you can.

– Investigate marriage more thoroughly than any other decision, weigh your options, and in particular examine your motives. If you are doing it for any of the wrong reasons, you have every reason to wait.

– Do not fail to express yourself.  Express love to your partner as much and as often as possible before it is too late.

– GO EASY ON YOURSELF regarding regrets and bad choices you’ve made.  Many regrets or failures can simply be considered a chance you took that didn’t work out as expected.  But give yourself credit for at least taking the chance.

– It’s very important as you get older to be gentle with yourself and appreciate who you are, because people are so hard on themselves. Try not to be too judgmental. Take it easy— take it easy on yourself.

– Eventually, you must forgive yourself – might as well do it now.

– The experts had a broad palette to express one fundamental truth:  life is short.

– The elders tell us that one day we will stand where they are, and we too will say, “It is amazing how quickly time passes!” They want us to acknowledge this unavoidable fact now— not to depress us but to help us to make smarter choices about how we spend our time.

– Each day has an unharvested abundance of pleasure, enjoyment, love, and beauty that many younger people miss.

Don’t worry so much. There is not enough time in our lives to trade off the gold of our existence for the dust of what-ifs or what-if-nots.

– Intimate connection with the ones we love is what truly graces our lives.

– Embrace life enthusiastically – strive for happiness with what you are given, right now, and to make this perspective a daily habit. This attitude is the gift we receive from awareness that life is short.

– You may not be responsible for everything that happens to you, but you are completely in control of your attitude and your reactions to them. If you feel annoyance, fear, or disappointment, these feelings are caused by you and must be dug out like a weed. Study where they came from, accept them, and then let them go. If you let outside pressures determine how you feel and what you do, you have just abdicated your job as CEO of your own life.

– Happiness requires a conscious shift in outlook in which one chooses – daily – optimism over pessimism, hope over disillusionment, and openness to pleasure and new experiences over boredom and listlessness. Happiness is created through intentional attitude change— the opposite of the sense of powerlessness inherent in waiting for life to deal out a better hand.

– The choice to be happy is one that is not made once and for all. Instead it must be enacted consciously each and every day— regardless of external circumstances. The happiest elders feel empowered; they have learned to act— to move intentionally toward a positive perspective.

First and foremost, decide not to feel sorry for yourself.  Just be glad that you have your life.

– Once people reach a certain age (70s and beyond), it’s almost a certainty that they have experienced significant loss and significant joy.  The elders have become experts in walking a balance between accepting loss and maintaining an awareness of life’s pleasures. 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.

– When asked what they would recommend to younger people looking for ways to make the most of their lives, many focused on one action: stop worrying.

Over and over, as they reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.”

– As I spoke back to myself over more than a decade, I found I had a single urgent message I would have liked to deliver: relax and stop worrying.

– Have a modicum of trust and stop worrying so much.

Their advice on worry is devastatingly simple and direct: worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training oneself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The experts conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it’s not just what they said— it’s how they said it.

– Worry saps your energy and accomplishes nothing. If the doctor says you have to have an operation and there is a risk involved (and of course there is), gather your facts, discuss it, make a decision, and again you have no need to worry. You’ve made the decision. What will be, will be.

– My life lesson is this: turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.

– What’s important is not just the advice to stop worrying but also how strongly and definitively the experts worded it.

– One of the important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you cannot control what might happen and you cannot change what did happen. I’ve really come to be able to negotiate life pretty much worry-free. I have learned that if I can’t do anything about a situation, then worrying isn’t going to change it either.

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.

– They see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning that greatly reduces worry.

A conscious attitude of acceptance is the solution to the problem of worry.

Worry— ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones— is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.

A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to the experts, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas the other is deeply regretted as a waste of precious time.

– Savor life’s pleasures, moment to moment, as one would a delicious meal.

– 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 – paying special attention to these “microlevel” events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up on a daily basis. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.

The experts exhort us to make savoring a conscious act, to treat pleasures in the current moment as special gifts. It’s a shift in consciousness that we can reinforce daily with a little effort.

– It seems to take a lifetime to learn how to live in the moment but it shouldn’t. 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. I’ve more recently gotten better at this and appreciate it. It brings peace. It helps you find your place. It’s calming in a world that is not very peaceful. But I wish I could have learned this in my thirties instead of my sixties— it would have given me decades more to enjoy life in this world. That would be my lesson for younger people.

– Experience a sense of gratefulness for the fact of being alive and for the innumerable simple pleasures that are available in any given day or hour. Most of us will almost certainly develop this ability late in life; a question to ask ourselves is why not create a savoring approach to life in one’s twenties or thirties rather than in one’s eighties or nineties? [Huge.]

– There is no question that for a happy and meaningful life America’s elders almost universally endorse the lesson: have faith.

– Being “engaged” in a congregation leads to greater life satisfaction. Congregation wherein there is collective contemplation could be found in other realms beyond the religious, especially in current times, but church is still formidable even if one disagrees with all the scripture. There is still connection to be had and wisdom to be gained about our being regardless of any rejection of truth claims about our existence.

If I could do anything differently in my life, I would be more compassionate about people in general. You know, you’re very critical of certain people, but now that I realize what they went through I would be much more compassionate. I would recognize their good points and I wouldn’t be so critical.”

When it comes down to it, making the most of life means connecting to and caring about others.