New York Times columnist David Brooks recently ran an interesting amateur sociology experiment: he solicited what he called “life reports” from people 70 years old and up, sharing what they had done well and poorly, then he combed them for lessons.
With the giant caveats that:
- these are people who read the New York Times and opted in to sharing their thoughts, so it’s hardly a cross section of the larger population
- I’m not sure how much these are learnable behaviors versus expressions of personality types
the results made for thought-provoking reading, and could help form some worthwhile New Year’s resolutions.
Divide your life into chapters. The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it.
The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points.
Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives.
Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.
You can’t control other people. David Leshan made an observation that was echoed by many: “It took me twenty years of my fifty-year marriage to discover how unwise it was to attempt to remake my wife. … I learned also that neither could I remake my friends or students.”
Lean toward risk. It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. For a time, our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.
When you reflect on your life thus far, do any of the above tendencies ring true? Do you think of your life in chapters or regret the risks you’d failed to take, for example?