What to Do in Your 30s to Be Happy in Your 50s

3 tips from those who should really know.

Posted Jul 07, 2016

Source: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

I was recently asked, regarding the studies I have done, "What should I be doing in my 30s that will benefit me when I’m in my 50s, and beyond?"

I love this question, especially because it's one we actually asked more than 1,500 of the oldest Americans in our studies of the practical wisdom of our elders. And they do not hesitate to give advice on this topic. From people who wound up happy and fulfilled in their 90s to those whose lives didn't turn out so well and want to tell us what to avoid, there were three common lessons for those in the 20s through 40s. Sometimes the view from the finish line is just what we need:

1. Choose a Career for Its Intrinsic Rewards

The one piece of advice given by almost every one of the elders is this: Find work you love. They say it’s vastly preferable to take home a smaller paycheck and enjoy what you do than to slog through a job you dislike and live for the weekends.

Willie Bradfield is 83. He's a former high school coach and is healthy and vigorous. Here’s what he told me:

I just loved the work I was doing. And I think that’s one of the biggest things I could tell young people: to get into something that you love, that you have an aptitude for, and that makes you totally happy. Because I think striving just to make money shouldn’t be Number One. I did my job because I loved it. I think the most important thing is to be involved in a profession that you absolutely love, and that makes you look forward to going to work every day.

2. Say Yes

We all share the experience of having co-workers who conceive of their jobs in the narrowest possible terms—their motto could be “think small." Firmly stuck in their niches, walled in by an office or cubicle, they are determined to stay in their small comfort zone.

This approach is a huge mistake. At work you should embrace new challenges at every turn, and say yes as often as possible. Among the most frequently reported regrets about work are those times when opportunity knocked and someone didn’t open the door.

Joe Schlueter, 79, brought this lesson home for me. Like many other children of the Depression era, he began his life in poverty. His father worked in the carpet mills and never finished high school. Joe worked hard and became a successful engineer and entrepreneur:

The lesson I learned is that it pays to say yes unless you’ve got a really solid reason to say no. And in my work life, I didn’t say no. I agreed to do things. It wasn’t all fun all of the time, but it led to interesting things. If you’re one of these people who says, “No, I can’t do that” or “I don’t want to do that,” you’re missing a lot of what life has to offer. Life is an adventure, but to take advantage of it, you have to say yes to things.

The elders who were happiest about their lives could all point to a decision they made when they were young. They were tempted to say no because staying the course was more comfortable and less risky, but they said yes to an opportunity—and it paid off. 

Eleanor, age 89, does a great job of summing up this point:

3. Emotional Intelligence Trumps Every Other Kind

If you want to feel good about your life when you're elderly, you need to hone your social skills now. The elders I spoke with came from hundreds of different occupations and employers. They've seen people succeed at work and other people crash and burn. Why those very different outcomes? They told me this: No matter how talented someone is, no matter how brilliant—you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.

Many people learned about the importance of interpersonal skills and empathy for co-workers when they served in the Second World War. For example, Larry Tice, age 93, told me:

When I went into the service, I was a young boy from a little hick town in Vermont. My whole family was well-to-do and well-known throughout town, well-respected and everything. I got into the Navy and I was just another punk. And I learned how to get along with people. That was the biggest lesson that has helped me all through life. Because you’re cramped living aboard a ship and you’ve got to get along with people: You have no choice. 

I learned to accept people until they prove me wrong. That’s what you need to do when at work: Be sociable and get along with the people you work with.

Overall, the elders’ advice is to move beyond the substance of your job and devote equal effort to learning how to maximize relationships with others. Those who did not adopt this principle told me they regret it. 

These actions are likely to make your 50s and the years beyond much more fulfilling. Be sure to ask the elders in your own life this question—they will have fascinating answers for you!