Kerry Burnight
Kerry Burnight, professor of family medicine in UCI's Program in Geriatrics, has learned a lot about making the most of each day through her interactions with seniors. She's also co-director of UCI's Elder Abuse Forensic Center. Steve Zylius / University Communications

When giving talks on how to live a full, meaningful life, UC Irvine gerontologist Kerry Burnight often invokes the memory of her two grandmothers. One was a self-centered woman who complained constantly about her health, her various discomforts and her declining appearance. “She was tough to visit,” Burnight recalls.

The other grandmother, she says, was just the opposite: “She was interesting, funny and lovely. And she was truly interested in each of her grandchildren. We could never get enough of her. I often bring her to mind and think, ‘OK, how can I position myself to be more like her?'”

It’s a question that interests Burnight both personally – as someone in her early 40s who hopes to end her days as the good grandmother — and professionally — as a professor of family medicine in UCI’s Program in Geriatrics and co-director of the university’s Elder Abuse Forensic Center.

By interacting with seniors, she’s learned a lot about how to live well and make the most of each day, not just in later years but now. “I’m lucky,” she says. “Working with older people holds up a mirror to my own life. If you can picture the way you want to age, you’ll be much more likely to go down that path.”

With her high energy (she’s a marathon runner) and upbeat personality, Burnight hardly appears in danger of morphing into a cranky crone. Is it simply favorable circumstances or good fortune that makes some people more content than others? She doesn’t think so.

She regularly encounters individuals who’ve endured significant hardships and loss — such as the death of a spouse, neglect or even abuse — but still maintain a positive outlook. Others she’s met have enjoyed all the trappings of worldly success but remain unfulfilled.

“By seeking your own comfort, your own happiness, you often end up less so,” Burnight says. “That’s not a new idea, but now there’s growing research that shows people who are generous live longer, have fewer diseases and are happier.

“Wisdom, generosity, gratitude — these areas are linked to a healthier, longer life and lower depression. Maybe if we cultivate them when we’re young, we won’t feel so alone when we get to the end of life.”

She remembers one older man who approached her after a lecture and said: “I’m a Ph.D. I’ve published four books. I’m wealthy. My kids are all successful. I’ve been married more than 50 years. I’ve done everything; there’s nothing left for me to do. When I wake up in the morning, I’m bored. I’m done — I did it.”

“I thought that was really sad,” Burnight says. She responded by opening her briefcase and taking out a list of six virtues that psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman found are common to happy people: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity and love (generosity, kindness), justice (social responsibility, citizenship), temperance (avoiding excess) and transcendence (spirituality, forgiveness, gratitude).

“So you’ve mastered all of these?” she asked. “Maybe this list would give you something to do. Is there anything you could improve on in your life?”

The man admitted that he’d never been a generous person, especially with his time. He decided to call his daughter and take her to lunch, something he’d never done before. “The next time I saw him,” Burnight says, “he had a spring in his step. He had something to work on; we all need that. When we cultivate these virtues, others want to be around us.”

Peterson and Seligman are leaders in the positive psychology movement, which aims to help people not just survive but thrive and lead more creative, rewarding lives. Burnight admits that encouraging others to practice love and courage is tougher than, say, coaxing them to get more exercise or eat better.

“It’s hard to say to someone, ‘You really need to work on your wisdom,'” she says. “But things like intellectual curiosity and generosity can be manipulated.”

The latter, Burnight adds, has nothing to do with forking out more money: “It’s generosity of self. It’s about giving your time, about being truly interested in others. That makes you more interesting to them.”

One also becomes more interesting by gaining knowledge, she says, which can be achieved by attending lectures, reading inspiring works, finding a creative outlet, learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby. Burnight’s job offers ample opportunity for  intellectual growth, but she has also challenged herself by tackling such things as learning to play the guitar.

“We’re not used to doing something we’re particularly bad at,” she says with a laugh. “But the goal is to be as sharp as possible and manifest our potential.”

Gratitude, which enables people to transcend their difficulties, also can be nurtured, Burnight says. She encourages others to write down what they’re thankful for in a daily journal. “It’s been shown to increase generosity, compassion and life satisfaction,” she notes. “And everyone can find something good about their lives.”

Positive spiritual attributes such as kindness and gratitude can sustain us in old age, Burnight says, a time when we can lose seemingly everything — our health, our homes, our friends, our family. Accepting our decline and death is key to appreciating the time we have and living a full life.

“Despite all the crossword puzzles we can do, there’s going to be change,” she says. “Things are going to fail. We want to live the best life, we want to age well, but it isn’t as though we can avoid death.”

And those virtues we cultivated when we were younger? They’re what lasts, Burnight says: “Our fundamental self is not our body or our brain. As we grow older, we become more like the person we authentically are — that which doesn’t die.

“Ageism is so pervasive in our society. Every magazine, every card in every card shop, every TV show depicts growing old in a negative light. We need to say, ‘This is what 80 looks like, and it’s OK.’ When you see an older person who has wisdom, it’s beautiful.”

Much like her favorite grandmother and her 83-year-old mother.

More for your brain
Want to learn more about living a full life? Burnight recommends these titles:

  • Essential Spirituality, by UC Irvine psychiatrist Roger Walsh
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
  • The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, by Gene D. Cohen
  • Why Good Things Happen to Good People, by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark
  • Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier
  • 30 Lessons for Living: Tried & True Advice from the Wisest Americans, by Karl Pillemer