What’s the secret to living a fuller, more content life? For John Leland, an award-winning New York Times reporter and author of the New York Times bestseller “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old,” the answer came from an unexpected place: from the lives of six people age 85 and up. He expected them to educate him in the hardships of old age. Instead, they taught him lessons of resilience, gratitude, purpose and perspective that apply to people of any age. All had lost something – spouses, mobility, their keen eyesight or hearing. But none had lost everything. And they defined their lives by the things they could still do, not by what they had lost. Sociologists call this the “paradox of aging”: as much as our culture obsesses over youth, older people are more content with their lives than young adults. They’re less stressed, less afraid of death, better able to manage whatever difficulties come their way – even when their lives are very, very hard. The good news about old age is that there is good news. And the better news is that we can all learn from our elders’ wisdom and experience. Whatever your age, it’s not too late to learn to think like an old person.
Here, Leland offers his thoughts, exclusive to Senior Planet, about one aspect of what he learned.
I spent a year following six people over the age of 85, and if you asked them what sort of social engagement they wanted, each would have given a different answer.
Ruth Willig didn’t participate in the activities of her assisted living building, but she made a point to email all of her children every morning, and she got together with her daughters every weekend. Fred Jones, who lived alone in a walkup apartment, loved talking about his past sexual exploits, practically reliving them, and he dreamed of someday returning to church (without the orthopedic shoes that cramped his style). Helen Moses created the second love of her life in a nursing home in the Bronx, and their relationship became their identity: They were Helen and Howie, always Helen and Howie.
Jonas Mekas, the oldest of the six, was the most active and outgoing, still making films and surrounding himself with people. “I’m like a vampire,” he’d say, “sucking the energy from other people.” Ping Wong played mah-jongg every day with the same three women in her building. Other people might have looked at Ping’s life and seen her medical problems, including debilitating arthritis and early signs of dementia. But Ping saw her life as an ongoing mah-jongg game, and saw the medical issues as secondary. She had more companionship in her 90s than in her working years.
The attitudes that work
I expected to find a direct correlation between their levels of social connection and how satisfied they were with their lives. But it wasn’t that simple. The X factor wasn’t so much these circumstances as how they saw their circumstances.
The ones who saw themselves as the authors of their lives, constantly changing and adapting, revising their stories as their circumstances changed, were the most satisfied, even when they were on their own. The ones who didn’t see themselves as authors of their lives — who saw themselves as fixed entities, and old age as something that happened to them — were the least satisfied, even when they had people around supporting them.
Lessons for living
It was a lesson in living that I could apply to my own life: that whatever hardships we have, whatever age we are, we have an active say in what role we give them in our life.
We can say that we’ll be happy when our children visit, or when we’re with our book group or with friends. Or we can live fully in this moment, whatever we’re doing, and use our minds and bodies fully right now, rather than waiting for the circumstances to make us feel engaged.
This became one of the lessons I wrote about in my book “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old.” They were my teachers, and what they were teaching me was how to age — meaning how to live. Sometimes on my own, sometimes in a crowd, always with gratitude for another breath. I couldn’t ask for wiser teachers.
John Leland is a reporter at the New York Times, where he wrote a year-long series following six people age 85 and up, which became the basis for his new book, the New York Times bestseller “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year among the Oldest Old. Before joining the Times in 2000, he was a senior editor at Newsweek and editor-in-chief of Details magazine.
Want to learn more about successful aging? Join us at the Senior Planet Center at 127 W. 25th Street in New York City on October 23 from 6-8pm for John Leland’s talk about what he’s learned about happiness and aging from people who are truly ‘aging with attitude.” The talk is free but registration is required; call 646-590-0615. You can also watch the talk live-streamed as it happens on our YouTube Channel here.