The Secret of Life: Lessons Learned From My 100 Year Old Dad

old man on park bench

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It’s quite common for people turning 100 years old to be asked the secret to their longevity; less common, but perhaps more important is what they may have learned along the way that might qualify as an answer to the question, What is the secret of Life?

As it happens, my dad just turned 100 in November! That’s a lot of living! Now, I love my dad, but we are rather different in our views on life, and don’t really talk about life’s big issues/questions much. If he told me what he thought the secret of life is, I’m not sure I would even agree! Ha!

Indeed, I am not sure there is A secret at all. There are, however, many useful lessons in life. Things that can help us navigate the journey. And Dad taught me a lot of lessons over the years. Not with words, but just by being who he was and my own perception and take aways that resulted. That’s what I will be sharing here.

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The Secret of Life is There is No Secret, Just Lessons

Life is not just about me

I am the 5th of 7 children, so this lesson in life was sort of built into my childhood. But there’s a bigger idea that this also relates to. The idea that there’s more to Life than my own experience of it. You know, that notion of belonging to something bigger.

For my dad, his Catholic faith is that bigger thing. So I grew up watching him rely on this faith through thick and thin, good times and bad. Now, I never fully embraced the specifics of his religious beliefs, but the idea of a higher power and of being able to find comfort and support in that power is something that I did adopt. And I carry that conviction to this day.


Having a belief in something bigger than one’s self is really a bedrock for happiness, imo. It doesn’t specifically have to be a higher power, per se. It could be recognizing the global community to which we all belong, the web of life, our place in nature and so on. Such a belief offers purpose and humility.

A good foundational lesson.

Be sure to laugh

Dad loves to laugh. I have lots of memories of watching TV shows and movies like Archie Bunker and Harold Lloyd and Dad really laughing heartily! It seemed to me that even if there were tensions or problems in our lives, Dad still laughed at funny things.

Some might argue that this is not necessarily a good thing–to laugh while there are serious issues unresolved. I get that. And certainly there are times when it’s inappropriate to laugh (remember this Mary Tyler Moore episode?).

But what I took away from it all, growing up, is that life is never so serious or bad that a good laugh can’t help. Akin to the idea that there’s always something to be grateful for, there’s always something to smile and laugh about, if you have the right perspective.


I am reminded of Vicktor Frankl finding humor even in the worst of conditions: Inside a concentration camp!

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent…..

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

Viktor Frankl

This lesson is one I use fairly often…. a good uplifting lesson.

It definitely brightens my days, and, I believe it’s good medicine too. It may indeed be one of the longevity secrets alluded to at the start!

Happiness is a choice

So this lesson is connected to the previous one about laughter. As I said, Dad loves to laugh, and , of course, we laughed when times were good. But there were other times when things were not great, and I remember Dad still laughing if he saw something funny on TV or whatever.

Being able to see the humor in bad circumstances or when life is stressful seems to me to be associated with the ability to compartmentalize, to choose what you focus on.

As an ER nurse back in the day, it was important to be detached from the drama of the “story” of the patient so that you could focus on and deliver the care that was needed. Detachment was necessary to be effective. So I had some practice with this skill back then.

What of using this in day to day life though? Doesn’t detachment equal aloofness? Isn’t that a bad thing? Shouldn’t we be passionate and involved?

Honestly, these are philosophical questions with no clear cut answers, and I touch on them elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say here that being able to use the “fulcrum of choice” was something I learned from watching Dad, and choice is generally a good thing.

Especially as it relates to happiness and joy.

Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus – an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice.

Hermann Hesse

This lesson is empowering.

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Enjoy the passage of time

James Taylor has a song called The Secret of Life in which he says the secret is enjoying the passage of time. Honestly, I am not sure any of us truly enjoy the passage of time 100% given that we all know where it leads us personally.

The certainty of death aside, I never got the sense from Dad (or Mom, for that matter) that they wanted to “stop the clock.” They both seemed content with the flow of life, non-resistant.

The only “anti-aging” efforts Dad made was in using a lot of supplements and eating specific foods for their health benefits. The impetus wasn’t so much about railing against the passage of time, but an interest in living a long life in good health (mission accomplished).

Dad also used to tell lots of detailed stories about his life. Stories about his childhood and days before I arrived on the scene. Stories about guys at work. Stories about things he and Mom had done.

I think the combination of his not being concerned so much about his appearance as he aged and the sharing of fond memories combined to teach me that the passage of time was not to be feared.

A lesson in acceptance. Very applicable to my stage in life!

It’s okay to indulge

I mentioned that Dad is fairly health conscious. But he also loves sweets! Even as he would add a new health food to his routine, he would eat chocolates and cookies and more on the regular. Daily.

People often get really regimented about their habits, really strict. Discipline is good, and I admire people that really stick to the plan they have made to achieve their goals.

However, it’s also important to enjoy your life. And if you really want sweets (or a break from your regimen), you should have them and do so guilt-free. Dad never seemed to find his love of sweets incongruous with his healthy food choices and supplements!

I extrapolated this idea of allowing indulgences to other areas of life–which Dad also did over the years. I remember him getting a new stereo system and a new car (we almost always bought used cars), as two examples.

These purchases were not the norm and for a variety of reasons caused a bit of drama. But the idea stuck, for me. Life is short. Treat yourself when you can.

A lesson in fun and enjoyment. We could all use more fun and enjoyment!

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Conclusion: The secret of life is whatever you deem it to be

The lessons above of things I have learned from my 100 year old father are nothing especially earth shattering or new. But they are meaningful to me as I reflect on Life and Dad’s life in particular.

In looking at these lessons written out, I noticed how they kind of overlapped and interrelated in Dad’s life.

For example, Dad’s faith and reliance on God as he understood Him may have been what led him to feel okay about indulging in sweets daily while also wanting to be healthy and long-lived–thinking that his life span wasn’t just dependent on his own actions.

Maybe laughter even during trying times was an indulgence that Dad chose as a way to detach from the stressful situation and enjoy something that lifted his spirits.

I don’t really know the thought processes behind Dad’s choices in life. As I mentioned, it’s not something we really talk about.

I feel like my siblings and I didn’t all come away with the same lessons. For example, one of my brothers once chided me for not being willing to eat something that I truly disliked the taste of–to eat it for its specific health benefits. My view was I want to like the food I eat whereas his view was that food is simply fuel–taste didn’t matter.

It’s like we each took the things Dad modeled for us and applied them differently in our own lives.

And that’s what it really boils down to. The secret of Life is whatever works for you. There is no tip or piece of advice that applies to everyone, I don’t think. The secret of YOUR life is a more apropos topic and it’s what each of us need to determine for ourselves.

The list below may or may not be helpful to you, but I share it to honor Dad’s 100 years!

The Secret(s) of Life Checklist: Wisdom From a Centenarian’s Life

Life is Not Just About Me

Lesson: Recognize the importance of being part of something bigger than oneself.
Quote: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle

Be Sure to Laugh

Lesson: Embrace humor even in difficult times, for it’s a powerful tool for resilience.
Quote: “Humor is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Happiness is a Choice

Lesson: Choose to focus on the positive aspects of life, despite challenges.
Quote: “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.” – William James

Enjoy the Passage of Time

Lesson: Embrace life’s journey without fear, appreciating each moment.
Quote: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha

It’s Okay to Indulge

Lesson: Balance discipline with occasional indulgences to enjoy life fully.
Quote: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” – Ernestine Ulmer

The Secret of Life is What You Deem it to be

Lesson: Understand that life’s lessons are subjective and unique to each individual.
Quote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard

About Cate

I am a retired RN–I enjoy blogging, designing mugs and more, and spreading a bit of positivity in the world.

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