Want to share your life experiences and help others? Here’s how to do it well

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As we age, we tend to search for a deeper meaning in being alive. Some find (or revisit) religion or give more of their time and money to deserving recipients. Others learn a new skill or even come out of retirement to launch an encore career.

But one of the easiest ways for older folks to derive meaning from life is to give advice. The simple act of sharing life lessons with a range of people—friends, family, students—can in itself enrich your days.

A 2016 study found that individuals in their 60s who give advice tend to see their lives as highly meaningful, while those who dish out less advice are less likely to report high life meaning.

“This association between advice giving and life meaning is not evident for other age groups,” said Markus Schafer, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “And it’s not about just going through the motions of offering advice. It’s giving advice that matters, of feeling like we’re of consequence to others.”

If you love to give advice, you may treat this study as great news. But finding a receptive audience for your wisdom—and conveying it in such a way that they heed it—requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

After you retire, loneliness might set in. Your social circle can shrink as you have fewer opportunities to connect with everyone from former work colleagues to casual acquaintances and strangers.

Ideally, you remain socially active in retirement. Engaging in activities that allow you to converse with diverse groups sets the stage for you to build positive relationships—and perhaps share advice at an opportune moment.

As community groups rebound from the pandemic, they can invite people in late middle age (or older) to share their experiences tied to timely issues. Schools and civic and religious organizations are well suited to host panel discussions on topics such as managing a crisis or parenting amid adversity.

“Some people are aching to share what they know and are looking for a platform to share it,” said Anita Sanz, Ph.D., a psychologist in Orlando, Fla. “Others don’t see how what they want to share is valuable so I’ll say to them, ‘There are people who can actually benefit from what you know.’”

Older people who build and maintain trust with others are more likely to be asked for advice. Patience pays off, as it can take time for someone to say to a friend or family member, “I need your advice about something.”

Schafer warns against giving unsolicited advice, even if your intent is to help someone in need.

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“For the person getting advice, it can imply they’re incompetent,” he said. “And it can be demoralizing to get advice,” especially if it’s hard-hitting, unwelcome or tough to implement.

Perhaps the best way to serve up advice is to tell a story—and let listeners draw their own conclusion. Instead of issuing directives (“Here’s what you ought to do…”), reflect on your experience (“Here’s what happened to me…”).

Say a grandfather wants to urge his teenage grandkid not to abandon a big commitment. He can declare, “Hey, don’t be a quitter. I’ve found that quitters regret it later.”

A better approach is to share an anecdote. For example, he may recall meeting a girl who lost a leg due to cancer.

One day, he calls her to see how she’s doing and the phone keeps ringing. He’s about to hang up when she finally answers.

He asks what took so long and she replies, “My crutches weren’t nearby, so I had to crawl to the phone.”

The “don’t give up” message rings loud and clear, while allowing the grandfather to skip the lecture.

“Avoid preaching or saying, ‘What you’re doing now isn’t helpful,’” Sanz said. “First, listen, practice empathy and take time to nurture the relationship” before you share a story that resonates with the other person.

After several such interactions, you may find yourself taking on a mentoring role. The people close to you may seek your advice more often.

“People committed to mentoring feel a greater sense of fulfillment,” Sanz said. “It should lead to a feeling of service that you’re making a positive contribution.”

She adds that the best advice givers apply two ground rules to maximize their impact when dispensing life lessons.

First, they confirm that others want to hear advice before they dive in. If you blurt out, “When I was your age,” you’ve already dug a hole that will distance you from the person you seek to advise.

Second, they show humility. Rather than brag about their smarts, they bask in their errors.

“If you’re trying to help someone develop a skill, it’s very effective to share ways that you failed and what you learned from it,” Sanz said.


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