“Society Grows Great When Older People Plant Trees Under Whose Shade They Shall Never Sit”

Portrait of Marc Freedman

Marc Freedman is the President and CEO of Encore.org, and is a renowned social entrepreneur, thinker, and writer.  I’ve been interested in his work for a long time. Among other things, he highlights the significance of harnessing the experience and talent of people past midlife as a way to make the world better.

This is important, because in 2019, for the first time ever, the United States will have more people older than age 60 than younger than age 18.

In his terrific new book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, Marc Freedman examines how we can make a more-old-than-young society work for all ages. But not only that—he also emphasizes how we can find fulfillment and happiness in our longer lives by connecting with the next generation.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Marc about happiness, habits, and productivity.

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

Marc: Walking. I walk about five miles a day, up and down the hills of Berkeley, California. It clears my mind—and it’s good for my dogs, too!

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Marc: I learned in my research for this book that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who don’t. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to that at 18, but it’s hugely important to me now.

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

Marc: Experience Corps, which I helped create more than 20 years ago, taps the time and talents of older adults to help 30,000 children in urban elementary schools learn to read every year. It’s a tutoring program, right? Well, not exactly. The conventional wisdom is that the relationships provide a foundation for the tutoring help. Today I think that formulation has it backward. The reading lessons are the scaffolding around which a rich array of bonds can take hold. And these connections aren’t just a means to an end; they’re an important end in and of themselves. In other words, I’ve realized that Experience Corps is actually a relationship program. You could say it’s helping to clear the market for love!

Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Marc: I make no claim on healthy habits! I’m 60, travel all the time, and have three sons—ages 8, 10 and 12. I have tried to develop healthy sleeping and eating habits for decades and failed over and over again. I can say, in all seriousness, that my love of music and movies has served me well, leading to many relaxing moments, quality time with others, even creative insights.

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

Marc: I used to eat any and all doughnuts. Now I only eat high quality doughnuts.

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

Marc: I’d say I’m a Rebel/Obliger hybrid. I want to get the job done in a way that makes me proud, but I seem determined to do it on my terms and my timetable. So, as you might guess, I have a lot of trouble with deadlines. In college, I set what I think is still an intercollegiate record for incomplete classes. In my first three semesters, I racked up nine incompletes—impressive, considering that I’d only taken 12 courses and four of them were pass-fail. Things haven’t improved much since then, I’m afraid.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties)

Marc: Travel, stress, deadlines, kids, dogs, parties, doughnuts. I’d say everything interferes at one time or another.

Gretchen: 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.?

Marc: I have had my share of health scares, and after each one, I expand my capacity for gratitude and renew my commitment to take better care of myself. I’m really quite religious about walking every day now. Knee troubles that threatened to make that impossible but have now thankfully vanished.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

Marc: I often quote a Greek proverb that reads, “Society grows great when older people plant trees under whose shade they shall never sit.” I see now that How to Live Forever has been all about planting seeds, irrigating them, letting life bloom. It’s ironic that my own great mentor in much of this was a man named (John) Gardner. It is our role as older people to plant those trees under whose shade we shall never sit. Our task is not to try to be young, but to be there for those who actually are.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.