With graduations just behind us, and the excitement of summer and a new school year brewing, it’s a good time to assess how these milestones shape us.
I write steeped in prep for my own high school reunion, celebrating graduation too many distant years ago. I’ll be flying to Los Angeles to see members of my Hamilton High School class whom I haven’t seen in decades, familiar faces that I have to realize will be etched with the years. And I’ll be one of the etched!
Classmates are uploading photos that reveal a different time, when personal phones were so far from imagination that the shoe-phone on TV’s “Get Smart” was a gag. The prestige possession then was a push-button phone in one’s room so you could whisper to friends into the night.
Three weeks after this time-warp experience, I’ll join my husband at his Yale college reunion, on the opposite side of the country. Many in his class have gained fame, as governors, college presidents, authors and other national leaders. Thumbing through the thick volume compiling prepared 500-word statements from the half of his 1,200-member class who submitted them so engrossed me that nearly two hours slipped away as I voyeured into the graduates’ summaries of their lives.
Perhaps trying that exercise now can guide us toward maximizing the life we have left.
What would you say about your life in just two pages? That’s 500 typed words, double-spaced. A few of my husband’s classmates pontificated about what their college years meant, or a philosophy they now espouse, but the vast majority focused on family. There was the sad remembrance from a devoted husband whose wife passed away from breast cancer when their children were young; the one-time bachelor who claims buying an extra ticket for a concert was the “miracle” that brought him his beloved long-term wife; the gay couple whose happy years together began before such liaisons were permissible.
The photos overwhelmingly portray couples or families with arms locked around each other. Only a few individuals spoke of independence and career. Which type of autobiography would you gravitate toward? What do you consider a life well-lived?
When giving speeches, I often quote a study that was conducted years ago while I was a doctoral student at UCLA, but that continues to offer an important lesson about life priorities. It was conducted by a professor on my dissertation committee, Dr. Linda Beckman of the School of Public Health, who was concerned about whether having children would bring or hinder women’s lifetime happiness. At the time, it was generally expected that children added to fulfillment, and that those who for whatever physical or logistical reason couldn’t have them would feel a loss.
Dr. Beckman and her fellow researchers interviewed a cadre of older women over the age of 65, half mothers and half not, and asked them to look back and assess their happiness over the years. The results were not what the study hypotheses predicted.
It was assumed that women without children would express loneliness or regret at missing out, and mothers would see their children as central to their contentment. But it was a different metric that made the difference in life satisfaction. The divisions occurred instead between those whose general outlook was the “glass half full” and those who saw their glass as “half empty.” Optimism versus pessimism.
Women with a negative view without children lamented they’d been robbed of a major life benefit, and now had no one there for them. The Debbie Downers who were parents had mainly complaints about the experience—their children were so difficult, they detracted from their success and now don’t pay them enough attention.
Conversely, the “glass half full” women who had no children often noted it, but found compensating joys that filled their lives. For example, “I got to be there for my sister’s kids and had time to travel too.” The upbeat mothers expressed pride and gratitude for their children, as well as for other aspects of their lives.
So, looking backward as well as forward, it might be beneficial to slip on a pair of rose-colored glasses. I see that in the words of my husband’s college classmates. “All in all, a great life so far—if defined as intense, meaningful, aspiring to a higher good, inspired by a higher intelligence,” a peer wrote. “And perhaps because I never cared much about finding happiness, it seems to have found me.”
One class dropout reminds us it’s never too late to re-set. After 40 years unmarried and dedicated to his career, he met a mature woman who a few years before had herself returned to college. He fell in love, married her, and after “a 90-term leave of absence,” re-applied to the college and in two years graduated, the only gray-head wearing the class mortarboard. He concludes, “I awake each morning with a sense of joy that I am married to such an amazing person, and a sense of wonder and gratitude that I have a job I find rewarding and immensely enjoyable.”
It’s the ongoing childlike sense of wonder at each day’s opportunity that propels us with energy to new discoveries. And it’s appreciation for having had the chances we did—and grabbing them– that brings the satisfaction of achievement.
The caveat is that the classmates who were utter failures weren’t the ones publishing their recollections. It’s a self-selected population portrayed in the reunion yearbook, but that too has a message. Live the life you’d like to see described in your obituary; fulfill the adjectives you most admire in others.