John Leland, author of Happiness is a Choice You Make, is a reporter for the New York Times and a few years ago, he went on a journey to meet people in America’s fastest growing age group: 85 years old and up. He expected to find mostly challenges like loneliness, the deterioration of body and mind and lowering quality of life.
But the people he met took him in an entirely different direction. Even though they had totally different backgrounds and circumstances, they all lived with a surprising lightness and contentment. In this episode, we talk about what it means to grow old. John shares the stories and wisdom of the six New Yorkers who number among the oldest old.
By the end of this episode, you’ll know how to live better from those who’ve mastered the art of living.
John Leland: This all began with a newspaper series that I wrote about the oldest old. People over the age of 85 and over, who are one of the fastest growing age groups in the country. I set out to do a story about the miseries and the hardships of old age and I ended up with a book about the joys of old age.
We did get a big response to it, you know, half a million people or so were turning into the stories that I was writing in the paper. But more than that, at the end of it, I couldn’t part with them because they had meant a lot to me.
I started to think about why that was and what I had gotten out of them.
In the newspaper series, I focused on what life looked like over age 85 to the people who are living it. In the book, I changed the focus a little bit to be what I learned about life from these people over the age of 85, who had lived a long time and probably had figured something out about life. And the changes that it had made on me.
Charlie Hoehn: Before we talk about what you learned, what were they doing? What did you notice in these six people?
John Leland: Well, I noticed a tremendous amount of resilience in them. They’d all had their losses in life, they lost their spouses, they had lost their mobility, maybe their keen eyesight or hearing but none of them defined themselves by their losses.
That’s only what other people did, their doctors did, their journalists, like me did, maybe their kids did. It was just, “Mom’s that person with Alzheimer’s.”
“But to mom, she was not her Alzheimer’s, she was not her broken hip.”
She was that person who was living a rich life and happened to have a broken hip.
Common Life Factors in Happy People
Charlie Hoehn: How did you find these people?
John Leland: I did not set out to find particularly resilient people. As I mentioned, I expected to write about hardships and the losses of old age. I just set out to find six people who were really different from one another.
They were gay and straight and black and white and Asian. There’s a retired civil servant and an artist who was still working, there’s a guy who never settled down and a woman who never dated after losing her husband of 50 years.
And a couple who I met in a nursing home and you know, had this incredible courage I think to fall in love at age of 90, knowing that it’s probably not going to last very long and one of you is going to watch the other one die. I thought that was tremendous courage and really inspiring to me.
Charlie Hoehn: What else did you notice apart from their resilience, their courage, what else stood out to you?
John Leland: There was a man named Fred Jones and Fred had an infection. He was in the process of losing two of his toes to gangrene. His closest daughter was dying of breast cancer.
I’d say to Fred, I’d go, “Fred, what’s your favorite part of the day?”
And Fred never hesitated, he would just get this big smile on his face and say, “Waking up in the morning and saying thank God for another day. On my way to 110.”
I’ve been around a while but I just didn’t get that at all. I didn’t see it, what Fred had to be grateful for or why he could want another 20 years of it.
“But I knew that every time I went to see him, I left there feeling better.”
So I started to think about saying thanks to the things in my own life. I realized, you know, if Fred could do it, I really had no excuse not to.
And once I started doing that, it just changed the way I looked at the world. That’s sort of how we get to the title of the book which is Happiness is a Choice You Make.
Fred could have wallowed in his hardships, but instead he chose to give thanks for the other things in his life.
A New Worldview
Charlie Hoehn: How long did it take for you to really transform your world view? How long did it take before it stopped feeling like a clumsy exercise and resonated with how you felt?
John Leland: I think it just kind of happened and I realized it retrospectively. I was going to see Fred and I thought, well, you know, my life’s pretty good. Or somebody else I know has a much better life than Fred and they’re miserable.
I just kind of, I just started doing it naturally, and I looked back on it and said, my gosh, things are so much better now that I did this.
Charlie: I recently watched a documentary, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, called, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.
John: That’s a Rob Reiner, right? Carl Reiner rather.
Charlie: Right, Carl Reiner. One of the things that stood out to me that I’ll never forget is how Seinfeld was talking about how there are a lot of people in their 80s, 90s who have this world view of they’ll take a sip of coffee and they’ll go, “Boy, that was the best, that might be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had,” and maybe objectively, it’s probably not.
They choose to have it be the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had. It sounds like that’s what you ran in to a lot with these six people.
John Leland: Yeah, you know, people always tell you to live your life as if every day is your last, and I found people who actually did that.
I’ll tell you about a guy named John Sornson. John, when I met him, I think was 91 and he had lost his partner of 60 years. Every time I saw him, he said, he wanted to die.
John was a guy who loved to talk and so, even talking about wanting to die, it cheered him up because he just loved to talk.
I would say, you know, “John, you wish you were dead now?” And he’d say “No, because we’re having this conversation,” and I said, “Well, okay, I’m going to leave in a little while, will you want to die tonight?” He’d say, “Well, no, my niece Anne, is coming over tomorrow, well yeah, the next day Scott, my aid is coming and yeah, Alex after that.”
You know, he wanted to die, but he didn’t want to die right now. He wanted to live just a little bit longer and what did that mean to him? He was going to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which was his favorite movie, and he wasn’t going to take it for granted.
“He wasn’t going to just like go through the motions, because it might be the last time he saw the movie.”
He was going to live each day as if it was his last. Even though he had all these miseries in his life, he managed to find joy and pleasure in that moment.
Learning from Happiness Is a Choice You Make
Charlie Hoehn: What’s the biggest change that this journey of making this book has made on your life?
John Leland: I’m more patient and more forgiving of others. One of the things that somebody told me was about not freaking out about things that hadn’t happened. Just wait for things to happen and then freak out about them or deal with them.
In this last year, when the news has been really ugly and everybody I know has been freaking about what might happen or might not happen, I have managed to find some degree of equanimity.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, you know, that reminds me of something I read by the Dalai Lama recently which is, “If a problem is fixable, there’s no need to worry, if it’s not fixable, then there’s no benefit to worrying, whatsoever.”
John Leland: That’s great, I love that. One of the people in my thing said, “Why worry about things? I never worry, because why worry about it when it’s not happening?”
You know, when it happens, why worry? You deal with it. You spend all this time worrying, and it probably won’t happen.
“Then what he said was, “Nothing is hopeless. I don’t even know what it means, hopeless.”
That’s a guy who is 95 and he happens to still be active in making movies, but I love that. Nothing is hopeless. I don’t know what it means, hopeless.
Charlie Hoehn: What did you use to worry about that you find yourself not really getting ruffled by anymore?
John Leland: Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I handsome enough? Am I going to run out of money? Am I going to lose my health? Am I going to lose my teeth? Am I going to lose my hair? Am I going to lose my partner?
You name it, I’m insecure about it. Or at least I was, and now I just let some of that stuff go. I’m like, okay, well, you know, if I were to fall down and break my hip tomorrow and become immobilized, how would I live my life?
“I thought, here’s the things that give me pleasure in life, and almost all of them would still be around.”
I wouldn’t be able to play tennis anymore, but since I don’t play tennis now, I’m not going to cry over that. You know, we think that we can’t undergo setbacks, and then when we do, we realized that we’re still the same person. Our life is still mostly the same.
You know, you might think that well, certain politicians are in office and this is a disaster for the world at large.
Then you think back and you’re like, well, actually, I lived through a lot of different administrations, and whatever went on in my life usually had nothing to do with them.
It’s just the change of perspective and it brings me much more comfort on a daily basis.
Life Experience and Chosen Perspective
Charlie Hoehn: John, how much of this do you think is a choice versus gaining enough experience and enough years under your belt in life that you finally have that perspective over time?
John Leland: That’s a great question. The people at that age have lost a lot. They’ve lost things and survived that loss and they have understood that life goes on, especially the women in their 90s who I spent this time with. They’d all nursed husbands to their deaths.
“Death wasn’t abstract to them.”
They’ve seen decline. They understood what it was. They weren’t going to worry about the little day to day things.
But they also had to make that choice, because they had plenty of problems that they could wallow in. One of the women looked forward all year to family trip to Atlantic City. As the date approached, she was feeling too sore. She had bad arthritis, and she’s like, “I can’t take that long car ride. I’m just going to have to cancel it.”
I think a younger person or a different person might have just wallowed in that loss and thought, how that made them special. She didn’t do that, she’s like, “I’m not going to go, I’m going to do something here.”
To both of those things, it’s the wisdom of the years, but you have to apply that wisdom and make that choice because we all know a lot of people that don’t make that choice.
The Power of Happiness Is a Choice You Make
Charlie Hoehn: What would happen to our culture, our society if you were able to imprint this idea into how we behave day to day? What do you think we would look like as a whole?
John Leland: I think we would have a lot less despair. There’s a great definition I read recently of despair as not being able to imagine a plausible, desirable future for yourself. If you’re afraid of old age, then you can’t, right? Because that’s not desirable, that’s not plausibly desirable. You’re afraid of it.
If you flip that and think we could have a choice about how we deal with old age, then that becomes a plausible desirable future for yourself and you can be thankful for that now and you can just go about your life with more gratitude and more forgiveness.
You know, we’re living longer. We can live better, we can become wiser people and more generous people. We don’t need to be battling each other for that promotion or stewing on the people that screwed us over here or there. You do that for a while and realize, all that did was make me more miserable.
Charlie Hoehn: How much power does the individual really have to make this choice?
John Leland: Well, I’m so glad you asked that, because I acknowledge that for some people, we have no power to make that choice. Depression is a real thing, and nothing in this book is meant to substitute as the treatment for depression. If you’re suffering from depression, changing your outlook isn’t going to do anything for you.
There’s people who have had tremendous losses in their lives and really can’t get over them or might not want to get over them because it would mean parting with the people that they’ve lost. I understand that. But I think the rest of us can move that needle a little bit, and it makes it easier.
“When I see that anti-aging cream, I think gosh, that’s stupid, who wouldn’t want to age?”
Here’s this anti-growing up formula and you could be six forever. You know, I don’t want to be six forever. Every age that I’ve been so far—I haven’t been old yet because I’m 58—I’ve gained things. I’ve lost some things along the way, I can’t do all the things I used to do, but I’ve always gained things.
I look forward to doing that in my late years as well.
Charlie Hoehn: What do you most look forward to about getting older now that you’ve gone through this book?
John Leland: Increased tranquility, I think, and perspective on things. Maybe a little bit more wisdom. I think that increasingly I’ll be able to find gratitude for the people in my life who have just been a part of it.
I think I’ve recognized that I love my job. I’m really fortunate to have this job working as a New York Times reporter, but there’s other things in my life that matter just as much or more than that, and that’s time with the people that matter to me.
I’m able to focus more on what matters and less on the stuff that’s just noise. I think I’ll continue to do that as I get older.
John Leland’s Favorite Story
Charlie Hoehn: What would you say is your favorite story from the book or even your reader’s favorite story from the book?
John Leland: I think it would be the long life of Jonas Mekas who started life as a kid in Lithuania. He was in school when the soviet tanks rolled in and turned his country upside down. After that, he’s in Germany and he’s putting up forced labor camp by the Nazis.
After that, he’s in displaced persons camps run by the UN, which are purgatories on their own. Makes it to the United States, becomes a filmmaker and talks about the hardships in his life.
He says, no, I’m grateful for all of that because they are the ones that brought me here now. I was able to arrive in New York just when Marlon Brando was breaking out, and I got to make movies with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and be friends with Andy Warhol and helped him start his career and Jim Jarmusch…and on down the line.
In his nineties, he’s making a movie. He calls it Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man. He’s happy, and he says happiness is a normal state. I think that’s such a valuable way to feel. How can somebody who was in a Nazi forced labor camp think happiness is a normal state?
Well, the Nazi forced labor camps are the thing that’s abnormal. The happiness is normal.
Selective Memory as a Gift
Charlie Hoehn: I understand that you do speaking at book clubs, speaking at organizations, what kind of messages do you talk about?
John Leland: There’s so many stories in the book—there’s six amazing characters, and I take no credit for their amazingness. That’s all due to them.
But the most moving part to me when I speak is always hearing form the audiences, because everybody’s got that one amazing aunt in their life or their grandfather or themselves, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, you know, I’m 93 and I can’t walk anymore. I’m in a wheelchair and I get up every day. I’m at it.”
You know, I look at 20 year olds and then they’re bored with life and I don’t understand that.
Charlie Hoehn: Why is that?
John Leland: Well, I’ll tell you one nice thing. Memory loss is associated with old age, it’s a terrible thing. We’re all afraid of it and there’s a good reason for that.
But there is also another kind of memory loss which is I think a selective memory, where we remember the good things in our lives and forget about the bad things in our lives.
Each of these people told me about their perfect marriage. They never got in a fight. The gay man said he’d never experienced any kind of prejudice against homosexuality.
I’m like, “Okay, John, you know, sure, your marriages were more perfect and you never had a fight. I get it.” You know, there’s kind of memory selection that does us a great favor.
I don’t know whether they were bored when they were kids. Maybe they were just as bored as that person who is like, “Nothing’s on Twitter,” now.
Charlie Hoehn: I’m curious, what types of organizations are most benefiting from your talks? Like, which ones are most seeking you out for this topic?
John Leland: Well, I’ve been to a lot of book store things and I love them, but the favorite things for me are like, JCCs (Jewish community centers) and YMCAs, public libraries, places where people can go for a free and where they’re used to seeing a mixture of ages and races and classes. Everybody can get there because it’s universal stuff, right?
We’re all getting older, we all have to decide whether these years are going to be miserable or years of growth, and we’re all going to have to work hard to get there.
I think when we get those groups together, something electric happens. The younger people are starting to learn from the older people and then the older people are learning something from the younger people, and everybody’s realizing that they learned more than they thought they did in the past from their peers or their elders or their youngers.
Perspective is Everything
Charlie Hoehn: What would you tell to somebody like me who is in his 30s and wanting to raise his daughter so that when she is in her 80s, she can fit into the mold as the tips of people in your book?
John Leland: Well, just stop and think about how amazing, how truly amazing life is and how little you had to do to make that come about. It’s just given to you.
“You didn’t have to invent chocolate or sex or the music of Mozart, and yet you have those things.”
You don’t have to beat out the competition to get there. That’s all just given to you, and we start to think about all those things. It kind of makes your problems look a little bit smaller. Maybe you don’t have time to think about them at all.
I mentioned Jonas Mekas, the film maker earlier. I went to see him read in a jazz club because that’s what 93 year olds do. He read this novella of his, and he just said there’s a part of it when his friend William Boroughs the writer dies.
He just said, “Did you ever stop to think about how amazing, truly amazing life is?” Hearing him on stage, reading that and he’s got the heavy accent and his hand’s shaking and you think, wow, he’s actually stopping and thinking how a truly amazing life is.
Gosh, I can do that and you can do that and your daughter, when she gets a little bit older, she’ll be able to do that and when she gets a lot older, she’ll really be able to do that.
We’ve all had those days when you’re just, you’re kind of in a bad mood and something’s not right and you get some place and you just – you feel the sun on your face and everything kind of changes in that instant.
You’re like, “Well this is the most ordinary thing in the world but how did this come about? What a remarkable thing it is that I’m sitting here and I’m feeling the sun on my face.”
How many things had to happen for that to come about?
A Challenge from John Leland
Charlie Hoehn: Do you have an exercise or a challenge for our listeners?
John Leland: Simple thing, it’s not my exercise. Just sit down and write down three things you’re grateful for today. They can be small or they can be large, and it just activates different centers in the brain and improves your outlook on life.
You’ll sleep a little better, you’ll be kinder to the people around you, you might be more likely to do something for a stranger.
But one exercise I like is to think about the difference between two different ways of phrasing our late years.
You can say, “Charlie, how do you feel about getting old and dying?” And I say, “Okay, well Charlie, how do you feel about living long but not forever?”
The difference between those is huge, right?
I want to live long and not forever. I don’t want one without the other, I don’t want to die early and I don’t want to get old and have it just keep going without end.
“Those things are gifts to us, and people in most of human history haven’t been able to do the first.”
They were eaten up by saber tooth tigers or wiped out by the bubonic plague. We don’t have that. The worst we get is like we lose some of our Facebook friends.
Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners connect with you and follow you?
John Leland: I’m dying to hear from people, we all have like an amazing elder in our lives or we are that amazing elder in somebody else’s life. I wish you would send me your stories.
My book is Happiness is a Choice You Make, and my website is happinessisachoiceyoumake.com.
There’s a link there to contact me and gosh, send me your story, link and send me a video, send me whatever you like and I promise I’ll respond to you.
The Resilient Actor: Debra Wanger