Music Suggestion: My Generation, The Who (enjoy this fun version from The Zimmers)
Drink Suggestion: Four Roses Bourbon

Yet a day comes when a man notices that ….he belongs to time and by the horror that seizes him he recognizes his worst enemy, tomorrow. – Albert Camus.

“Do something to make your parents proud.” Unsaid but implicit in this directive was the coda, “for a change.” My grandmother was a spritely 99 when she wished me good luck upon my first extended move away from home, to begin my young college days in Texas some 35 years ago. Born in 1878 (just imagine), Grammy was a wise and wrinkled sage who had seen much of the world, living in the Sudan, Puerto Rico, and up and down the East Coast, accompanying my grandfather, the stern Scots-Irish minister, as he wandered the globe tending the flock. She suffered fools (like her grandson) with patience but was not shy to offer advice. Unfortunately, I too quickly dismissed advice like this from Grammy, from my parents, from anyone not of My Generation.

It is our loss that the advice of elders is not more regularly sought or highly valued. Only they can speak from experience on things like family, regrets, happiness, career choices, and the value of good health and well-being. Karl Pillemer shares this sentiment and set out to document the opinions and advice of older Americans, seeking common threads in the guidance they proffered. Pillemer is a Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College and directs the Cornell Legacy Project. He also authored 30 Lessons for Living, Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

To copy/paste Amazon’s introduction of the book:

After a chance encounter with an extraordinary ninety-year-old woman, renowned gerontologist Karl Pillemer began to wonder what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. His quest led him to interview more than one thousand Americans over the age of sixty-five to seek their counsel on all the big issues- children, marriage, money, career, aging. Their moving stories and uncompromisingly honest answers often surprised him. And he found that he consistently heard advice that pointed to these thirty lessons for living. Here he weaves their personal recollections of difficulties overcome and lives well lived into a timeless book filled with the hard-won advice these older Americans wish someone had given them when they were young.

I enjoyed reading 30 Lessons for Living and was struck by the alignment of lessons therein – common sense opinions from very common people – with principles on happiness routinely proposed by the better-known gurus and academics in the field. Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Chopra, all respected thought leaders in the business of happiness, preach deeper fulfillment through small moments and the savoring of simple pleasures, not extravagance and grandiosity. Gratitude, lifelong personal development, self-determination, respect for one’s health, networking, and the pursuit of one’s passions now are all themes shared amongst these giants in the field (and touched on occasionally in these postcards by your blogger).

Here is Csikszentmihalyi, writing about happiness and its attainment in his seminal piece Flow, through the appreciation of simple things: sight, taste, music, and mastering one’s body (sex and yoga being good avenues). There is Csikszentmihalyi again, introducing his readers to the deeply fulfilled autotelic worker, who is internally driven to succeed, not externally driven to make money. Now some Chopra (with a few annoying background violins) telling us about the power of gratitude and its connection to the soul in this YouTube video. And Chopra’s law of Dharma: “Seek your higher Self. Discover your unique talents”.

Seligman cites that every person (save 1) in the top 10% of happiness in his highly-respected research on the topic was involved in a romantic relationship, that happier people have significantly richer social lives than their glummer counterparts. More Seligman, this time on the deception of the hedonic treadmill; the more we attain, the more our expectations rise. The things we worked so hard to acquire no longer satisfy. In the words of my favorite narcissist of this generation, Homer Simpson, “more please.”

There was general consensus amongst Pillemer’s study participants on a number of themes (which he boiled down to the 30 lessons). For example on happiness: time is short so act on it now; do those things that are important now. Happiness is a choice. Stop wasting time worrying. Don’t stress (“this too will pass” was a favorite saying of my mother’s when I would call to complain about the kids or share other annoyances). Think small and be grateful for the small things you can enjoy. Savor life’s daily moments. Focus on the short term, not long term. Understand how much is enough, and the difference between wants and needs. Walk on your tiptoes and look for the “aha” moments in everyday life, not the big things.

According to Pillemer, “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.”

I don’t have your attention long enough to review the full 30 lessons list here, but offer this: if you are overwhelmed by the volume of self-help tomes on the bookstore shelves today – Pillemer claims that over 30,000 have been published – you may want to opt for his beautifully simple addition. Also, the Legacy Project website at Cornell is updated daily with new stories and interviews. There is no agenda amongst his contributors to be edgy or conformist, to grab your attention and sell books and advice. They are simply telling it the way they see it after many moons on this earth, many joys lived and mistakes made.

I will close out with favorite quote from one of Pillemer’s many interviewees:

I came into this world with nothing, my experiences are only mine and I will leave this world with nothing. The only one I can change is myself.

Amen to that.

Oh, a final note on my Grammy. She liked to keep a bottle of Four Roses bourbon in the freezer for her nightly nip. My saintly mother, the small-town doctor’s wife and teetotaling church deacon, would slip discretely down the alleyway behind Grammy’s apartment  to the local liquor store and pick up Grammy’s favored tipple. Yes, and in a heavy paper bag please.

Bill Magill

Song Suggestion: Happy, Rolling Stones
Drink Suggestion: Rimauresco Rosé 2010, Cotes de Provence

I am publishing a late, short blog this week. A last-minute request by INSEAD has me scrambling to prepare a course for mid-May. My apologies for this blogus interruptus.

Martin E.P. Seligman is the uncontested high priest of the Happiness movement since publishing his seminal work on the science of well-being – Authentic Happiness – in 2002. For Seligman acolytes, which include most leading psychologists, educators, counselors and coaches of positive psychology worldwide (and an equal number of lagging nobodies, such as your blogger), the anticipation preceding Seligman’s new book – Flourish – compares to the fervor around a new Beatles album or J.K. Rowling’s next Harry Potter installment.

Flourish starts with a startling admission: he hates happiness. Well, that is not true exactly (but it’s a gripping leader to keep you reading). He hates the word “happiness”, and that pleases me immensely. I too have struggled with the happiness concept in the context of my search for greater fulfillment and well-being. I can be perfectly happy relaxing on the terrace at Les Deux Garçons, drinking rosé, chatting with friends and watching tourists snap photos along Cours Mirabeau all afternoon long. Is this improving my well-being, giving life more meaning? Offer my kids an Xbox and a dark television room and you’ll not hear a peep (ah, tranquility at last!). Are they happy? Absolutely. Being well? Our opinions would differ on that answer.

That he would start Flourish by dissing his earlier masterpiece, considered by many a bible of the movement, reflects much about what separates Seligman from self-help gurus. Notice that I didn’t say other self-help gurus, because his not a member of that clutch. Seligman doesn’t tap into mystical forces, promise spiritual enlightenment, or proscribe an expedient list of x steps (where 3 < x < 12, depending on your guru du jour) to radically fix your shortcomings.

Seligman is serious academic who founded and runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has been a professor of the discipline for the past 40 plus  years. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and in Haggblooms’ “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” from the Review of General Psychology, Seligman is listed at number 31. In Silicon Valley parlance, he is a BSD in his field (Big Swinging Dick, sorry).

His proposals around a life lived more fully are based on years of rigorous, peer reviewed research and statistically-significant findings and analysis. His website (see my blog links) is an extensive resource center for teachers, coaches, students, and the merely curious about positive psychology, containing the latest publications and a battery of self-tests, as well as findings, conferences and links. A word of caution: before entering this site block out the next 4 hours of your day. If you too are fascinated by the science of positive psychology, entering Seligman’s site is a slide down the rabbit hole.

Whereas Seligman’s intention with Authentic Happiness was to increase the reader’s life satisfaction, the goal of Flourish is to provide greater insight into factors affecting positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment, or what he calls PERMA. His recounting of experiences with children and adults, enthusiasts and depressives, as well as soldiers returning from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan reflects the effectiveness of his toolkit (at loss for a better word) in real-world situations. The book’s greatest gift, however, is the set of practical exercises and practices scattered throughout that are intended to bring more PERMA into the reader’s life. A sample few of these include:

  • The uplift from writing gratitude notes
  • Keeping a 3-things-that-went-well-today journal
  • Taking the VIA signature strengths test and understanding the results
  • The art of active and constructive responding
  • The GRIT test and what is reveals

If you feel a resonance with the concepts of PERMA and a student of best practices in the field of positive psychology, Flourish is necessary reading and deserves a spot on your Kindle list. In lieu of a more thorough and deserved review (I simply don’t have the time this week) I provide a list of the book’s chapters for a better sense of its content:

  1. What is Well-Being?
  2. Creating Your Happiness: Positive Psychology Exercises that Work
  3. The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy
  4. Teaching Well-Being: The Magic of MAPP
  5. Positive Education: Teaching Well-Being to Young People
  6. GRIT, Character, and Achievement: A New Theory of Intelligence
  7. Army Strong: Comprehensive Soldier Fitness
  8. Turning Trauma into Growth
  9. Positive Physical Health: The Biology of Optimism
  10. The Politics and Economics of Well-Being

I welcome any and all comments on Flourish or any other pieces you are reading in this topical area. More to that point, my initial intention with Postcards was to serve more as a resource center on midlife fulfillment and continued engagement, less as a platform for ramblings by Bill Magill. I simply love writing and so this it has become. If you are interested in posting your own essays and experiences to Postcards, please let me know.

Bill Magill

Postscript: My good friend, confidant and former boss Peter Hankin passed away in late April. We had never discussed Martin Seligman, the concepts underlying PERMA, or my more recent exploration into this area, but over our occasional lunches through the many years Peter and I often shared thoughts on what really matters in life. He was like that, always asking first about the family and inquiring as to my personal journey, before moving on to some business issue of mutual exploitation; the rational for one of us expensing the meal. There are far too few people in the world like Peter, and now there is one less. A damn shame.