Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Happiness is a Choice You Make by John Leland

At the beginning of 2015, John Leland, a journalist for the New York Times, embarked on a year-long project. He met with seniors to come up with six people to follow to learn from them about being old, and what it means today. The result was a series in the newspaper and the book, Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old.

One of the fastest growing groups in the United States is those over the age of eighty-five. They're now called "the oldest old". Leland interviewed a number of people before he found the group he would visit with and follow. He picked three men and three women, some still living independently, and some in nursing homes. Although he thought he would observe and write about them for the paper, he found himself learning how to live. With a marriage that had just ended, a mother in that age group, and a health issue, Leland learned how much he had to learn.

Some of the information he uncovered confirmed expectations, while he was surprised by some of his discoveries. While married couples had longevity, he was surprised that widows lived just as long, making new friends and making new lives. But widowers, on average, lived shorter lives than married men. Leland thought the seniors lived longer lives, but at a loss of quality. What he learned is most of the seniors were satisfied with their quality of life, even if they had poor health. He discovered his lessons were "seminars less in aging than in living".

The lessons are worth quoting. "Each elder had different lessons to teach: from Fred, the power of gratitude; from Ping, the choice to be happy; from John, acceptance of death; from Helen, learning to love and be needed; from Jonas, living with purpose; and from Ruth, nourishing the people who matter."

If you read Leland's book, you'll meet all six of those elders, and a few of their family members. You'll encounter their memories, and their present. And, that's most important. Most of the elders are present for their current life. Only one of them dwells on the past because he had a long, contented life and he was ready to move on.

In the end, Leland learned a lesson we should all accept. "The elders' gift to me was a simple one: a reminder that time is both limited and really amazing." There are lessons in this book for all of us, but that sentence does sum up John Leland's Happiness is a Choice You Make.

Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old by John Leland. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2018. ISBN 9780374168186 (hardcover), 242p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I've been following his series about them in the NY Times from the beginning. I know one was ready to die, but several of the others are still getting on with life. Jonas Mekas is pretty amazing.

Kay said...

I think this book sounds really good and I know I'd like it. Will look for it at my library.

Lesa said...

Two of them had died, Jeff, by publication date. You're right. Jonas Mekas is amazing!

Lesa said...

A little hope for our futures, Kay!

Rosemary said...

This sounds fascinating, Lesa - I will see if it is published here. My own mother is 90 and lives in a sort of shared residence with 8 other people. It is run by a charity and it's absolutely lovely. There is no 'personal care' (though you can bring it in if you need it), but they get everything like cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc done for them. My mother is still very active and 100% switched on - what this place has provided her with above all is congenial company, and I am so happy we found it. I think if I take any lesson from her and her companions it is to keep interested - in life, in other people, in your family, in your hobbies. I think they have a great quality of life, they all seem very happy, and much more accepting of things (whether it be minor physical inconveniences, or the foibles of others) than people of my age are. - I just hope there is somewhere like this when I am ready for it.

Lesa said...

Rosemary, Your mother's residence sounds wonderful. I hope there's somewhere like that when we're both ready! It sounds as if she's still leading an active life with people to keep her socially active. I think this book will only confirm what you already know.

Gram said...

I found out we have it in large print at my library and am now on the list. Thanks

John Leland said...

Hey, thanks for reading and commenting, Lesa. One of the many rewards of writing this book has been the feedback from people who feel an emotional connection with one or more of the characters. Most either have a remarkable older person in their lives or are that remarkable person in someone else's.