Happiness is a Choice You Make



Key insights from

Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old

By John Leland

What you'll learn

This book began as a series of in-depth interviews that New York Times reporter John Leland conducted called "85 and Up." The book's title is just one of the numerous lessons that Leland gleaned through research and time spent with his newfound mentors.


Read on for key insights from Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old.

1. The elderly are not problems to be fixed but sources of tremendous wisdom.

For the majority of human history, the word of an elder carried serious weight and their decisions were respected. Age was a sign of distinction and reason to show someone honor. The elderly were taken in and cared for by the family. Grandchildren witnessed decline and death in the home.

This is still the pattern in many parts of the world, but in American culture, this is an atypical arrangement. The elderly are often described as "cute" and quaint, and they say the funniest things. Do we actually take them seriously? Just because they haven't figured out social media doesn't mean that they have nothing to offer. The late author May Sarton, in a book published in the autumn of her life, compared old age to a foreign country with a language unfamiliar to the young and middle-aged. Sarton quips that, "The trouble is old age is not interesting until one gets there." 

A study from Cornell professor Karl Pillemer found that people are more likely to have a friend of another race than to have a friend who's more than ten years older, let alone forty years. The fact is that we miss out when we don't spend time with the elderly and take them seriously. They are a source of wisdom with hard-earned perspective to offer if we would only ask.

2. Even with declining health and a shrinking pool of options, the elderly are some of the happiest people on earth.

When one reaches the final years of life, there's no need to stress about the future and potential paths because those major decisions were made a long time ago. There's less uncertainty. The final certainty of death is one that most have come to accept. It is no longer an abstraction for the '85 and Up' club, and so most have made peace with it in one way or another. 

Studies reveal that despite declining health and the shrinking social circles typically accompanying old age, the elderly tend to be among the happiest humans on earth. What accounts for this contentment? Interviews reveal remarkable changes in values: rather than social mingling and rubbing shoulders with strangers, the elderly tend to be more choosy about their activities and the relationships in which they invest time and energy. They also tend to become less preoccupied with self and the perceptions that others may have of them. Periods of solitude become viewed less as conditions of loneliness and more as opportunities for quiet reflection.

Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam termed this phase of life "gerotranscendance"—rather than a season of decline, it is a time of rising above pettiness and self-consciousness that plague and paralyze so many of the young and middle-aged. In a series of interviews with elderly subjects, the majority considered their lives greatly improved since they were fifty. Most said they were less concerned with superficial relationships and material possessions, and experienced greater joy and depth of inner life. This shift is largely attributed to wisdom. It's a clearer grasp of what matters and what can be set aside, something that is best learned through lived experience. Wisdom correlates positively with well-being. The energies furiously invested in shallow endeavors are now dedicated to the cultivation of the more enduring aspects of personhood. Expectations are more aligned with reality, which means less disappointment and anger. 

This was the case for the six interviewees for the recent New York Times series as well. Those who accept what comes with old age are happier than the ones who wish they were forever young.

3. Gratitude contributes heavily to physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.

G.K. Chesterton once described gratitude as "happiness doubled by wonder." It is a central virtue of numerous world religions and ancient philosophies. Cicero considered gratitude the parent of all other virtues. Everyone's grateful at least some of the time, but for some, it appears to become a lifestyle, as natural as breathing. 

What's amazing is that gratitude—an inherently relational virtue—lights up not just the brain's reward center, but also the regions that govern moral and social processing. So if you eat a cake you bought from the store, your brain's reward center will light up, but not the moral-social region. If a friend brings you a freshly baked cake, however, both the reward center and moral-social portions will light up—even if the cake is small and tastes terrible. Science confirms that it truly is the thought that counts. The recognition of kindness holds more weight than the thing itself.

This is why suffering and gratitude can coexist. One interviewee for the '85 and Up' series, Fred, had ample reason to brood over problems and complain, but he chose thankfulness for what he still had. A kind greeting from a neighbor or an extra helping of dessert were reason enough to be thankful.

Studies have shown that gratitude can be learned, and that people who kept a log of things for which they were thankful for several weeks tended to become more optimistic about the future, were more likely to help others, to get restful sleep, and make time for exercise. These results held—even for people who tended toward pessimism. Gratitude has also been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation, improved immunity, and decreased amounts of cortisol—the stress hormone.

4. As life's pace slows down, the elderly find greater joy in simple pleasures.

People are living longer, but are they actually able to enjoy the extra years? In the 1970's, Johns Hopkins professor Ernest Gruenberg posited that the United States' medical system mistakenly prioritizes extending life rather than improving it. We've gotten rid of diseases that kill quickly, only to deal with chronic conditions that lead to a long, painful decline. Gruenberg terms this the "failures of success." We don't have to worry about the threat of large carnivorous mammals or polio, but an unnecessarily prolonged limp.

Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the chief architects of the Affordable Care Act, echoed this opinion more recently in his essay, "Why I Hope I Die at 75." In it, he paints a dismal picture of increased longevity, and argues that the elderly eek out existences that are only marginally preferable to death. He writes that this stage of life "robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world…We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged, but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic." 

Emanuel is dismissive of stats that indicate higher rates of happiness among the demographic he claims is enduring a miserable existence. The survey results fail to capture the atmosphere of the nursing home, dementia and general suffering, he argues. The piece elicited strong push-back from, among others, the elderly who had lived beyond Emanuel's golden marker of seventy-five years.

Emanuel's perspective assumes that life is worth living so long as you're still able to live as you do now—with memory, mobility, and independence still intact. The truth is that for many of the old and oldest old, aging is not a story of loss but trade-offs. The loss of mobility, memory, and vigor is often the seedbed for a more mature perspective of life and for the enjoyment of what remains.

One of the six interviewees, Fred, admitted that the later years haven't been as good as his younger days. He humorously reflected that he now has a small bag of potato chips instead of a big one, but he still has potato chips, and he thanks God for them every morning. It sure beat death, which offers no potato chips whatsoever. There's an unlearned vanity to Emanuel's view. It just might take the process of aging for his view to soften and mature.

5. There are more sexually active seniors than people think.

The thought of the elderly making love is not one that people relish. It fails to get airtime in Hollywood or advertising. A common myth surrounding old age is that the elderly no longer have sex. This view is not only patronizing, but ignores the data, which suggests sexual vitality among a significant number of seniors. According to a 2010 study, between a quarter and a third of men and women over eighty engage in sexual activity.

These recent discoveries have led to discussions about relationships and love-making in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The implications of dementia for assessing mutual consent, for example, is a discussion that some institutions have had to broach with residents and their families. In the interest of fostering intimate relationships, some homes make erotic literature and videos available to residents. Dating services have met with mixed success in the homes where they've been introduced because many who have gone through the sad, taxing ordeal of caring for a dying spouse are not eager to look for love again. They're more likely to seek out meaningful friendships, a cadre with which they can share daily activities. 

It is also worth noting that impotency isn't the soul-rending loss that many young people fearfully anticipate. Most seniors take it in stride. There are other expressions of togetherness that mean more and other activities that are harder to give up, like mobility.

6. Overthinking gets us nowhere, and blocks our enjoyment of purposeful existence.

Many people have come to accept the inner noise and worry as essential to the fabric of life. But all the interviewees, in one way or another, had managed to put aside the noise and fears. By doing so, they discovered that life was full of wonder.

Perhaps no one embodied this better than Jonas, a ninety-two year-old who came to the United States as a Lithuanian refugee when he was twenty-seven. Even now, Jonas is still active in the world of literature and the arts. He writes and performs poetry at clubs in New York City, has written and directed numerous films, and has published an autobiography. He also founded and fund raises for the Anthology Film Archives, still considered a premier theater for experimental films.

Jonas was a farm boy in Lithuania. He said that work was not work until the Soviets invaded and dubbed everyone "workers." Until then, he was just doing what needed to be done. He insists on being a doer rather than a thinker, someone who lives according to instincts. As he sees it, ideas have landed humanity in a lot of trouble. "When you're from a farmer's background—village life—people live, they don't analyze themselves."

He had a strong sense of purpose to live for, and he refused to think about death. Life, he said, was still going. He'd have time enough to think about death when he was actually dying. Until then, there was life to be lived.

7. There is joy to be found in the chaos of adventure and uncertainty, as well as in the simplicity of another uneventful day.

All six seniors with whom the author spent substantial time lived through the year. Their respective struggles and bright spots remained mostly constant. No one had rip-roaring adventures abroad. No one tried his or her hand at extreme sports. They had simple pleasures like visits from family and friends, and this seemed to be enough. Ezekiel Emanuel, the man hoping for swift decline at age seventy-five, belittles—and probably fears—the prospect of an ever-narrowing range of aspirations, activities, and responsibilities. A life in which quietly listening to audiobooks or doing Sudoku puzzles are hallmarks is overwhelmingly underwhelming for Emanuel.

It's very likely that he's not alone in this fear, but let's consider the contrast between two novels for a moment: James Joyce's Ulysses, a story that chronicles a day in the life of a small town, and Leo Tolstoy's sweeping epic War and Peace, which details a saga spanning decades full of gunpowder, treason, and plot. The world of Ulysses carries a sacred sense of rhythm. There's a comfort and beautiful simplicity to the finitude of a single day. The world of War and Peace, by contrast, is full of adventure and intrigue, but also chaos and uncertainty. No one would deny that there is a deep richness to both stories. Indeed, great wonder awaits the person who looks through a telescope or a microscope.

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