Happiness research by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert teaches that most of us aren’t good at predicting how happy we will be in the future. Not only are our predictions based upon current feelings and events, they also flow out of our previous experiences—none of which necessarily explains what will happen, or how we will feel, far into the future. Instead, Gilbert recommends that we study and learn from those who are living the experience we say we want to mimic. Could it be that only the oldest of old living today can offer us clues about living a very long and happy life? That’s exactly what John Leland suggests in his new book, Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a year among the oldest old. For those of us who see a very long life as a gift we want to embrace, this book is a window into the wisdom of several elders with a great deal to teach.
Author John Leland is a reporter at The New York Times. There he wrote a series of articles over the course of a year about six older adults over the age of 85 that eventually became this book. He readily admits that when first given the assignment he expected the series to be about the difficulties and downsides to aging in a personal way. And although downsides existed, what he learned from the adults he interviewed was an underestimated wisdom and contentment in spite of their diverse circumstances and personalities. And, as you might guess from the title, he came to see “the late stages of life as unexpectedly rich and the elderly as incomparably wise.”
While I can’t begin to share the unique and heartwarming personalities that Leland reveals throughout the book, I can offer ten lessons I discovered in the pages. They are:
- What we think about happiness, contentment, and peace-of-mind is a perspective of age. Until now I never considered how happiness changes as we change along with our circumstances. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? What I thought made me happy at 8 was far different than what made me happy at 18, 29, or 40. Obviously at my current age of 62, and what makes me happy now, will shift as the years go by. Sure, some things might remain, but we would be wrong to believe that what it takes to make any of us happy today will do the same at 90. Each of our wants and needs will change, but that doesn’t make them bad—just different. Indeed, most of us will be far more content than we are now.
- What we hear about aging is far more disastrous than the reality. Leland claims, “contrary to stereotypes, most old people aren’t sick and frail.” In fact, he goes on to repeat what I’ve confirmed in several other publications that most are living independently in greater numbers and in better health than at any time in the past. He says, “At eighty-five and up only 11 percent live in a nursing home or similar facility, and almost two-thirds say they don’t have trouble caring for themselves.” Unfortunately, “the least healthy get the most attention.” And while there are certainly tragic cases of health and poverty, that is by far the minority. It’s time to stop scaring ourselves about getting old.
- Aging is not a problem to be solved. Most of us at a younger age (even my age at 62) can view advanced aging as filled with loss—mental, physical and even emotional—and we want to ‘fix it’ and make it acceptable to us as we are now. But this book suggests that prolonged age asks us to switch our focus from it being a problem to beginning to recognize the benefits of a long life. Advantages like the ability to focus and feel positive emotions far more than negatives, a selective memory that allows us to focus on what is pleasant rather than unpleasant, and far less attention to material things or superficial matters. In fact, one current study shows that older brains resemble the brains of those who meditate. How great is that?
- It’s important to feel useful at any age—but especially at advanced age. And part of that feeling of being useful is recognizing that it will eventually be necessary for us to accept help from others. As the author says, “Allowing the other person to do something for you, rather than insisting on doing it yourself—is a kind of giving…True generosity includes enabling others to be generous.”
- Gratitude is not a reaction to what’s going on—it is a way at looking at the world. Anyone who is able to make gratitude a habit will magnify the pleasure, however small, and leave less room for complaint or envy. Instead of defining ourselves by our losses or hardships, we can instead choose to focus and be thankful for the good we find.
- We hold the power to make ourselves happy by choosing among the stuff available to us. By learning to be more flexible, adaptable, and to recalibrate our goals, we have the ability to decide what makes a life worth living. In other words, we can be happy in spite of our circumstances, not because of them.
- Death often gives life its value. Accepting that death will come sooner rather than later at a certain age does not diminish the value of our lives—in many cases, it makes each day more precious. The older we get the more we recognize the merit in finding peace, contentment, and happiness in the moment, no matter what the circumstance.
- As we age, developing interdependence may be far better than independence. What is interdependence? Leland describes it as, “accepting help with gratitude.” Recognizing that we need other people. Interdependence allows us to survive whatever hardships come our way without letting them define the quality of our life.
- Those who create a purpose that sustains them through latter life will benefit the most. Whatever it is, big or small, “make it a passion, not a hobby.” Ongoing studies continue to report that those with a strong sense of purpose have far better health and fuller, happier lives, than those without.
- Never, ever forget how amazing, really amazing life is—no matter what your age. As Leland says, “Even as their worlds got smaller, their capacity for amazement did not desert them; little delights were not so little. Wonder, too, is a choice you make.” Instead of measuring each day by what we do or get out of it, maybe we should just recognize how miraculous it is to greet the arrival of another day.
Another thing I picked up after reading this book was how closely the lessons from these people touched on a form of rightsizing. Let go of what doesn’t matter—and focus on what does. I guess I could call it, rightsizing your age. Leland goes on to say, “Whether you are twenty-five or eighty-five we can choose to live in the things that warm us—in love, humor, compassion, empathy, a supportive arm—not because they make life easy, but because they do the most for us when life is hard.”
As I mentioned above, my biggest takeaway is how it is nearly impossible for us to even imagine what we will feel like or what will seem important to us twenty, thirty, or more years in the future. We will be different, life will be different, and things change. As I’ve written about before, how we view aging (like looking forward to, rather than being afraid of) does help to set us up for a positive outlook. And yes, we need to stay as healthy and as active as we can. But beyond that, being open, flexible and adaptable will be some of the greatest skills we can adopt as we move into advanced old age. Plus, it would likely be SMART to seek time with those elders who have so much to share about living happily in the place we all hope to find ourselves one day.
Okay your turn: What are your thoughts about getting older? Are you open to what good you will find or does it seem like a scary thought? Do you spend any time with people who are 20 or 30 years older than you? Do you know people in advanced old age that are doing well and seem happy? Please share any personal thoughts on this in the comments below.