Karl Pillemer: “Many Things I Worried About Never Came to Pass, and the Problems That Showed Up Weren’t the Ones I’d Worried About.”

Karl Pillemer: “Many Things I Worried About Never Came to Pass, and the Problems That Showed Up Weren’t the Ones I’d Worried About.”

Interview: Karl Pillemer.

Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University. A family sociologist and gerontologist, he's the founder of the Cornell Estrangement and Reconciliation Project, in which more than 1,600 individuals have been surveyed regarding their experiences of family rifts and ways to overcome them.

He's written two books sharing older people's advice for living: 30 Lessons for Loving: The Wisest Americans Advice on Love, Marriage, and Relationships (Amazon, Bookshop) and 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Amazon, Bookshop).

His newest book is Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Karl about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative? 

Karl: I can sum it up in one word: move. I’m not terribly athletic, but my regular runs and bike rides are for me a key to getting ideas and moving beyond places where I’m stuck. If I’m working on a difficult chapter or article, it is amazing how frequently the solution comes to me as I’m puffing my way along one of my usual routes. And I never, ever, distract myself with music or podcasts while I’m running, just because so often it’s when get my good ideas. I carry my phone, but I use it to only to do voice memos for ideas as the pop up when I’m on the move.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

That worry wastes your life. I was born the type that worries, but I have realized that many of the things I worried about never came to pass, and the problems that showed up weren’t the ones I had worried about. In my studies of the wisdom of older people, this is one thing they really taught me. Indeed, one of the most common regrets people have at the end of life is time wasted worrying. I do my best to plan as carefully as I can, then I try to tamp down the mindless, continual worry about worst-case scenarios.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most? 

My new book, Fault Lines, is about how people cope with and overcome family estrangements. I surveyed hundreds of people who were in family rifts, as well as those who had reconciled. Many of these individuals had extremely negative family experiences, including things like harsh parenting, intense sibling rivalry, betrayal, and unmet expectations. However, in some cases, even in after rifts lasting decades, they found ways to reconcile. I was deeply struck by the courage and hard work it took to mend a fractured family. Most surprising to me was this: Many people who reconcile after a long and difficult estrangement find it to be an enormous engine for personal growth. One person told me: “If you can do this, you can do anything.” Fortunately, they were very generous with their advice for how others can do the same thing, and I captured that in Fault Lines.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Absolutely: I learned how to sleep. For much of my life, I believed I was a night owl and that I could get by on 5 or so hours of sleep. I thought I needed that extra time to get everything done. But I faded by mid-afternoon, barely staying awake in meetings. About 10 years ago, I finally realized that was denying my circadian rhythm. In fact, my body starts sending signs that it wants to shut down by around 8:30 PM. I made the switch to going to bed when my body was ready and the result was transformative. My sleep improved, I’m alert during the day, I’m less stressed, and I love the clarity of working in the early morning.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am unequivocally a Questioner. I tend to ask lots of questions, which can put off new acquaintances at times. Fortunately, in my work as a sociologist and author, I get to spend a lot of my time designing interviews and surveys and asking fascinating people questions. My books all involve interviewing people who have been through major life challenges, asking about their advice for others in similar situations. I’ve been able to ask centenarians how young people should live their lives; couples married for 70 years how to have a long and happy marriage; and people in estrangements how to reconcile. So I have put this personality trait to good use.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? 

For much of my life, I had a terrible habit: I was chronically late. I was the last person to almost every meeting. For some reason, people accepted this trait and didn’t complain much, but it bothered them. Then, at my 50th birthday party, my colleagues roasted me by coming up with a list of “Karl’s 50 excuses for being late.” It was a wake-up call, and I decided to employ the “40-day rule” to see if I could break the habit. I made a game of trying to on time for everything, and it pretty quickly became the new normal. What I thought was an indelible personality characteristic was actually a bad habit I could change. Now I love having the higher moral ground, as I sit tapping my fingers on the table while other people slink in late. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? 

I spent around a decade interviewing very old people about the lessons they learned that they would like to pass on to younger people, for my book 30 Lessons for Living. I was talking with a very frail woman in a nursing home, who nevertheless radiated contentment and peace. When asked for her advice, she told me “In my 89 years, I learned that happiness is a choice, and not a condition.” She and other elders learned how to consciously choose to be happy on a daily basis, in spite of infirmities and losses. That phrase stuck with me and ever since I’ve tried (not always successfully) to make that one of my principles for living.

In your field, is there a common misconception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

There’s a very popular view that in contemporary society, family bonds just aren’t important anymore. We are supposedly in a period where social norms holding families together have weakened and attachment and obligation among relatives has disappeared. That simplistic view, however, is incorrect. Indeed, after spending years studying family rifts, one thing became clear: How much families still matter. Despite major changes, the family is still where most people go for stable relationship ties, comfort, and support in crisis. No matter how much society has changed, family relationships are the most enduring ones most of us will experience. And as my research on estrangement for Fault Lines shows, when people are cut off from family ties, it can be the most painful experience of their lives. So take all the screaming headlines about the end of the family with a grain of salt: it’s still a tremendously important institution for most human beings.

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