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John Gokongwei, Jr.’s secret to long life and happiness at 90: ‘A clear conscience’

John drinks tea every day, takes a nap after lunch and is a hearty eater.

The auspicious 90th birthday of philanthropist and self-made business leader John L. Gokongwei, Jr. and also the 60th anniversary of both his Universal Robina Corp. and JG Summit Holdings, Inc. were marked with a dinner reception on Aug. 11 at the grand ballroom of Crowne Plaza Manila Galleria Hotel in Ortigas Center, Pasig City.

The simple yet fun program was emceed with good humor and wit by his son-in-law Atty. Perry Pe, highlighted by the speeches of his son Lance Y. Gokongwei, his youngest brother James L. Go and his wife Elizabeth Yu-Gokongwei.

When I asked Lance what he considers the long life secrets of his dad, he smiled and replied: “A clear conscience.” I told Lance that was the same answer given to me by the late Philtrust Bank, Manila Bulletin and Manila Hotel chairman Emilio T. Yap, who said: “A clear conscience lets me sleep well every night.”

Based on speeches, my recollections of past conversations with Gokongwei himself since the first time I got to know him in 1987 and on the new book by Lance Gokongwei with co-writer Yvette Fernandez entitled Lessons from Dad, John Gkongwei, Jr., here are what I think are some of Gokongwei’s long life and happiness secrets:

1. Close family and friendship ties. In her very short yet heartfelt speech, Elizabeth Yu Gokongwei paid tribute to her husband for being “a good family man and a loyal husband,” noting his “sense of family duty” which their son Lance is now continuing. He maintains close friendships with fellow businessmen.

In a study of Australian centenarians — people who live up to 100 years old — it was discovered that close family ties and close friendships is one important secret for living to 100. Why? Friends and family members give us emotional support to cope with stress, also helping the body produce feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin which promote brain growth and lessens aging. Various studies indicate that we human beings have an optimum need for up to six good friends — and that’s enough for our health.

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2. Never retiring. In his speech, Lance Gokongwei said: “The number three is significant because this is the third time Mr. John has said he will retire. I have reason to believe that this time, Mr. John may actually believe that he will indeed retire.”

I recall 10 years ago, a week before he turned 80, Gokongwei casually asked me: “Wilson, do you think I could still work up to 90?” Most people retire early or dream of retiring young, but not him. In fact, he used to cite the late Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew and the now 95-year-old SGV Group founder Washington SyCip (who was there at his 90th birthday dinner) as great examples of people who have not totally retired but have kept themselves busy.

3. Exercise regularly. I know that like Metrobank’s George S. K. Ty and Philippine Airlines’ Lucio C. Tan, Gokongwei swims regularly. He also walks on a treadmill. Lance revealed: “Dad exercises every day. When we were growing up, he would skip rope, do pushups and swim laps. When he got older, he spent a lot of time on a treadmill or a stationary bike. In the evenings, Dad and Mom walked around our garden together. Now that he is 90, Dad still swims regularly and likes walking around the mall. His mind is still as sharp as a blade.”

4. Passionate work ethic. Like many self-made taipans, Gokongwei exemplifies the traditional Confucian work ethic. He is driven by passion for his vocation.

5. Having a sense of purpose. When he was 13, Gokongwei lost his father. He promised his mother that he would take care of their whole family after that, and he did. As an entrepreneur, he dreamed of creating outstanding local brands, to promote Philippine industrialization, to build a multinational business and to do philanthropy via education.

6. Endless curiosity, endless study. Gokongwei is always curious, often asking questions. He loves to read books, magazines and newspapers.

7. A sense of adventure. Ever since his youth, no matter how busy he was, Gokongwei regularly traveled yearly to learn, to expand his horizons, boost ties with his family and to unwind.

8. Drinking tea every day. Gokongwei, Jr. drinks Tieguanyin tea every day. It is a type of good-quality oolong tea from Anxi, in the southern part of Fujian, called thih kuan yim in our Hokkien dialect. He told me that in his youth, his mom could only afford to let him drink this tea when he was sick. Scientific studies show that tea helps prolong life since it is low-calorie, full of antioxidants and has many other health benefits.

9. Good genes. His brother James Go said their father died young due to an incorrect blood transfusion, but I recall that their mother lived a long life.

10. Daily naps. Gokongwei takes a nap daily after lunch. He recounted that in his travels — for example at museums in London — he’d sit in a quiet corner and take his daily nap. I asked where he used to take a nap in his early days as a young trader and importer; he said he’d just get a newspaper to cover his eyes and sleep.

11. Eat well. Gokongwei is a happy and hearty eater, and he loves good food. (I noticed his wife Elizabeth tries to monitor the health benefits of his foods.)

12. A good, supportive spouse. Lance Gokongwei said: “I was still quite young when Dad told me, ‘The most important decision you have to make in your life is whom you’re going to marry. That decision will dictate the rest of your life, whether you will have a happy life or a miserable one.”

13. No smoking. Gokongwei told me that he gave up smoking on Aug. 21, 1983, the day former Senator Ninoy Aquino was assasinated in the airport. I asked him why; he said he was so shocked, he forgot to smoke the whole day and he realized he could quit smoking. When I asked my cousin, topnotch cardiologist Dr. Dy Bun Yok, the top three tips for taking care of your heart, he advised: exercise at least three times a week, no smoking, and watch what you eat (eat less and try to eat healthier).

14. Luck, or God’s blessing. I recall Gokongwei recounting to me several cases wherein he fortuitously escaped death. Many years ago in his younger years, Gokongwei was at a restaurant when a man at another table accidentally fired his gun — he was shocked to feel the bullet actually graze his stomach, but was otherwise unscathed. On another occasion, top doctors in Makati once predicted that he was going to die of an ailment, but his youngest brother James Go was graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he decided to just go to the US for medical care and to attend that graduation. The US doctors told him he wouldn’t die, that he just needed to stay a few days in a hospital to recover; it was also in that hospital that he came across some journals on snack food machines, called up his factory and eventually went into his now successful business Jack ‘n Jill snack foods.

15. Generosity. Although John Gokongwei, Jr. didn’t go to college due to the death of his dad and has lived a simple life, he and his family’s Gokongwei Brothers Foundation have given generous donations to universities and schools as well as endowing academic scholarships.

A 2015 article in the Chicago Tribune reported: “If there’s a magic pill for happiness and longevity, we may have found it. Countless studies have found that generosity, both volunteering and charitable donations, benefits young and old physically and psychologically. The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness.”

We do not have to be tycoons or rich to be generous, because we can be generous with our time, with our words, with resources big or small, with simple acts of kindness. I believe generosity is one important secret for having a genuinely happy life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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