116 Years Old: Lessons Left Behind From the World’s Oldest Living Person

Besse Cooper, world's oldest living person
Besse Cooper celebrating her 116th birthday on August 26, 2012. Photo by Guinness Book of World Records.

Besse Cooper died peacefully earlier this week. At 116 years old, she was the oldest living person in the world. She was also one of the five oldest Americans in history.

Cooper was born in 1896. She married her husband, Luther Cooper, in 1924. He died half a century ago in 1963, but she never remarried. She has four children, 11 grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren, and two great–great grandchildren.

During an interview with the Guinness Book of World Records, Cooper was asked about the keys to living a long life. She offered two pieces of advice: “I mind my own business. And I don’t eat junk food.”

Let’s talk about the wisdom in those two simple statements and how you can use it to live better.

“I Mind My Own Business”

Stress is a silent killer. It can take years off of your life, and in some cases, it can end it altogether.

There’s no doubt that Besse’s mantra of minding her own business helped her avoid unnecessary drama, useless comparisons, and unwanted stress. That’s a good lesson to learn and it’s a deeper wisdom than it appears on the surface.

Give how much we focus on our own lives, it would be easy to convince ourselves that we’re minding our own business when in fact we are doing exactly the opposite. We care about the job we have, the house we live in, the clothes we wear, and the car we drive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that in many cases we think we are minding our own business, but really we are slowly being sucked into comparing our lives to our peers, our neighbors, and our community.

And trust me, I’m guilty of this as well. I like being respected and praised as much as the next person.

Truly minding your own business has nothing to do with comparison. It means knowing what you stand for, distancing yourself from the unimportant and unnecessary drama that has a way of seeping into your day, and living your life for the people around you instead of comparing it to the people around you.

“I Don’t Eat Junk Food”

Besse didn’t eat junk food and I suggest that you don’t either. But this piece of advice is about a lot more than what you put on your plate.

If it’s not a good idea to fill your stomach with junk food, then it’s probably not a good idea to fill your mind with “junk” thoughts or your day with “junk” energy or your life with “junk” people. The work you do, the enthusiasm you bring to life, the people you hang out with — these aren’t just life decisions, these are health decisions.

Fill your plate with real food instead of processed junk and you’ll go from overweight to overjoyed.

Trade watching TV for going on a photography adventure and you’ll go from consuming what someone else created to contributing your own work to the world.

Surround yourself with people who are doing amazing things and you’ll go from “How could I ever do that?” to “How could I not?”

The way you live and the health you enjoy are one in the same. You can’t “do some healthy things” and then get on with your life. Your health and happiness are merely an expression of how you live your life.

The good news is that the best way to live life is also the healthy way to live it. Dedicating yourself to fulfilling work, exploring life with curiosity and enthusiasm, contributing to the world around you, and surrounding yourself with people who are inspiring and exciting are great ways to not just live a wonderful life, but to live a healthy one as well. Those choices don’t merely make you feel alive, they keep you alive.

Learn from the World’s Oldest Living Person

Maybe Besse Cooper didn’t get bogged down in the drama and the junk of life because she was too busy setting her sights on something else.

When she was asked what advice she would give to high school graduates, Besse said, “You can do most anything you set as a goal in life.”

Besse Cooper didn’t become the world’s oldest living person by accident. She knew that what you put into your life determined how much, and how long, you got something out of it.


  1. An engaged life with lots of drama may indeed be high risk but I don’t think the length of a life is a valid measure of its value or its richness. If Martin Luther King had minded his own business, sure, he would have lived a lot longer, but would the world be a better place?

    • Great point.

      I’m certainly not advocating living a submissive life where you don’t stand up for what you believe in. The key takeaway here is that when most people get involved with drama it’s not because they are standing up for a noble cause (like Dr. King), it’s because they are trying to one–up their peers or instigate small problems for others in an attempt to make themselves look better by comparison.

      It’s not about avoiding confrontation altogether, it’s about escaping unimportant and unnecessary drama so that you can focus on what matters.

      • James,

        Your counter argument / point is spot on. Standing up for what we believe in isn’t considered butting in, unless it’s intrusive and we’re forcing thoughts down someones throat. The key is that we mind our own business for the petty, unimportant, non goal oriented activities. This can be better known as gossip or irrelevant situations to your life goals. Life goals can take many forms so it’s up to you to decide whats what.

        • Nate — Thanks for sharing my man. I totally agree.

          p.s. I went and checked out your website. You’ve got a great story. It’s awesome to have you as part of the community here.

    • The world wouldn’t be a better place without Martin Luther Kings or other positive engagements. But I guess if really everybody who had or has any kind of impact on the world would have minded his own business, the world wouldn’t necessarily be much worse. Unfortunately by far most of the human impact has been negative. And where’s a lot of minus it takes an even bigger plus to improve something…

  2. “Mind your own business” is great advice. A lot of human suffering is caused by minding other people’s business.

  3. Hey James,

    This is so powerful. I also think a lot of what Besse say’s about minding your own business and avoiding junk food has to do with putting up barriers between yourself, and all of the things that you don’t want to enter your life. You put your attention on your passions. You put your attention on what lights a fire inside of you and the wellbeing of yourself and the people you care about. You give less attention to the people that make your frustrated, angry, or make you feel bad.

    I think I like this Besse character :).


    P.S. I noticed you live in Durham (when you’re not taking pictures of course). I live in Raleigh. Maybe I’ll see you around.

    • Liz — first, thanks for reading. I couldn’t agree more. I love the idea of putting barriers between you and the things you don’t want in your life. Too often we complain about being the victim of negative events instead of making an active effort to eliminate them from our life.

      p.s. Give me a shout on the contact page. I’d love to meetup sometime.

  4. So glad I read this. I have the greatest of admiration for wise words. I woke up feeling a little down trodden and disillusioned but now I am ready to get up and go for it – and ‘Mind my own business’. Thank You.

  5. Another great read, thanks James.

    “I mind my own business” section reminded of a quote by Will Smith:

    “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”

    No wonder so many people consider life to be stressful :) If only we learned to do things for our own reasons (business), life would be so much easier.

    Aaand because I’m a quote junkie :) I’ll share another one in agreement with Peachfront:

    “Life is not about how many breathes you take, but about the moments that take your breath away.”

    • I know, right? Good lessons from someone who has been there.

      p.s. Thanks for reading! It’s great to have you as part of our community here.

  6. You have a great way of taking what ever story and gleaning an important life lesson from it. That is a gift. Love, love your blog. You’re a very cool guy.

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