Life Lessons from “Happiness is a Choice You Make”


We couldn’t decide whether to put our post on John Leland’s wonderful book in the retirement or wellness section of the blog, so we’re checking the box for both categories.  It contains so much wisdom for living well at any age. 

While reporting for the New York Times, Leland spent a year with six New Yorkers, most of them in their 90s, for a series of articles he wrote for the newspaper on aging.   His book, “Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old” presents the life-changing wisdom he discovered.    

At first, he found what he expected to find— the loss of health, of partners and friends, of mobility.  But gradually, he saw beyond the elders’ declining health to find extraordinary resilience and satisfaction.  As Leland notes, “Each of the six was showing me ways to stop stewing in life’s problems.”

When all the striving of mid-life falls away, what is left is a surprising amount of contentment.  That’s good news, because as Leland writes, “Until recently relatively few people experienced this stage, and even fewer reached it in good health.  But that has changed.  More people are living past age eighty-five than at any time in human history (nearly six million in America, up from under a million in 1960), and they are living longer once they get there.  Which means your parents are the vanguard your kids think they are.”

In the second half of the book, he devotes a chapter to each of the six elders, outlining the realizations that developed in their time together.

Fred Jones &John Leland

Fred Jones and John Leland– Photo by Nicole Benvigeno of The New York Times

The Lessons of Fred: A graduate seminar in gratitude

“The miracle of Fred was that will all his hardships, he always found reasons to feel fortunate,” Leland writes.  Fred Jones was just grateful to wake up and live another day.  And he never dwelt on his problems. Fred had mastered living in the moment: “One day at a time, dear Lord, one day at a time,” he said. “I didn’t think no further than today.  Then tomorrow, I’ll think of that day, and that’s it.”

The Lessons of John: A Complete Life

At 91, John Sorensen had plenty of aches and pains, in addition to missing his partner of 60 years, Walter Caron.  At first, it mystified Leland that when he visited Sorensen, talking about death seemed to cheer him up!  Acknowledging death, Leland realized, enabled Sorensen to truly savor listening to a favorite piece of music or visiting with an old friend.  It might be the last time, and that made it all the sweeter: “His days weren’t fleeting. They were saturated with pleasures of his own choosing.”

The Lessons of Helen: Needing and Being Needed 

Helen Moses is a resident of the Hebrew Home for the Aged, a respected facility in Riverdale, NY.  Whether she is feuding with a neighbor or falling in love, Helen has a very engaging social life.  It’s a life many would envy, especially when loneliness among the elderly has become recognized as deeply debilitating. 

Helen’s daughter Zoe visited her mother once or twice a week, and called her regularly.  The nature of her visits changed, however, after Helen met Howie, a fellow resident, and began a romance with him.  Howie became a constant presence in Helen’s life.  She even announced that she wanted to marry Howie, to her daughter’s amazement and chagrin.  Talk of the marriage gave Helen a chance to dream, and to deepen her fondness for Howie, even if their romance remained on a platonic level.

Leland was intrigued by Helen’s ability to juggle her relationships with Howie and her daughter, and by how she made her own happiness: “I’m always happy,” she said, and then gave her definition of happiness. ‘Not to think of any bad things. To let everything go.  But young people are too young to understand.’”

More delight in older age

The elders were less interested in material things and social contacts that weren’t meaningful to them.  Leland cites a study where two-thirds of people over 75 agreed with the statement, “Today I have more delight in my inner world.”  These are happy revelations in a society obsessed with “anti-aging.” 

Some might say, it’s easy to be content when you have money.  But several of the elders lived on very little, including Ping Wong.  Public assistance takes care of her basic needs in New York City, after decades of working and being paid minimum wage or less.  It doesn’t take more than a much more than a daily game of Mahjong with a small circle of friends to keep Ping engaged and content.

Life isn’t about work.

“In my year with the elders, none spoke of their professional accomplishments— a surprise, given how much of our lives we spend either working or obsessing about work,” he writes.  “This was even true of Jonah Mekas, who was still creating significant work.  The elders also never mentioned obstacles they had overcome.  Somehow these things no longer seemed the measure of a life.”

What Leland learned improved his own relationship with his mother, Dorothy.  He learned to enjoy the time he spent with her more, and to see her caregiving as less of a project or something to be fixed. 

And it transformed the way he lives his own life. As he noted in the Times, “No work I have ever done has brought me as much joy or hope, or changed my outlook on life as profoundly.”   

Leland begins the book with a quote from David Bowie: “Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”  This book brings together wisdom to inform the way you live now, and to carry forward for tomorrow should you be lucky enough yourself to become an elder. 

Leland’s story of the elders in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/nyregion/want-to-be-happy-think-like-an-old-person.html

See the John Leland’s “In My Humble Opinion” —

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/learning-how-to-think-about-death-changed-how-i-live

Buy the book on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Choice-You-Make-Lessons/dp/0374168180

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