The New York Times journalist imparts invaluable wisdom–overcoming loneliness, dealing with loss– all of which he learned from the “oldest of the old”.
John Leland, award-winning journalist at The New York Times, shares the wisdom of six elders, all above the age 85 in his bestselling book: Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. In it Leland surprisingly finds that despite their diverse backgrounds and circumstances they each lived with a lightness and contentment. The uplifting lessons from those who have mastered the art on how to “live better” teach us not to take hardships personally or waste time grieving about losses, but rather to discover joy in the things we can still do. Above all, we humans are extremely resilient and can change how we view life at any point.
How does learning about old age teach us how to live now?
Someone who is 92 knows something about dealing with loss, and still finding joy. The elders I spent time with had all lost something: spouses, siblings, mobility, maybe their keen eyesight or hearing. But they led complete lives, and they didn’t take their losses personally. Bad things happen — to all of us. They’re part of a good life and an unhappy life. We can learn from elders about how to choose what place in our lives we give those losses.
Was unhappiness on your radar when you started this venture?
We all have losses and tough days. I want to be clear that depression and anxiety are serious conditions, and the book is not intended as an alternative to treatment. As for me, my marriage of almost 30 years had fallen apart, my days of being a rising young gun at work had passed, and for part of my time with the elders, I was in a walking boot for a chronic muscle problem. The elders helped me put my problems in perspective: they were just challenges, and all of life includes challenges.
Were you not worried your book’s title could be insensitive to people dealing with depression?
There was a balancing act. I wanted to upend the stereotype of old age as depressing, but also to recognize that some problems can’t be ameliorated by a change in attitude or bearing. But if there’s a wisdom that carries over, it’s that depression, like old age, is not the whole of a person’s being. It’s just a part, and maybe not the most interesting part. He or she is a person with an illness; not an illness.
What’s the lesson for youth who are experiencing anxiety and depression at alarming rates?
If they could learn one thing, it might be a capacity to sustain mixed feelings. By that I mean an ability to find pleasure or good in a situation where there’s also pain or loss. Younger people are more either/or. For myself, I’ve found that meditation helps me put a space between negative stimuli and my reactions to the negative stimuli. I know the negative stimuli probably won’t kill me, but my reactions to them might. This gap helps me manage my reactions. So that’s a start.
You relay lessons of gratitude, resilience, purpose, and acknowledging death: how has this experience changed you?
I don’t personalize hardships—stuff happens. I distinguish what might happen but hasn’t yet from what has actually happened—an enormous benefit in the last year especially. I don’t see the world as an opponent I need to beat, or a punishment I need to resist. More often than not it’s on my side. It gave me chocolate and sex and the music of Miles Davis, without me having to do anything to create them. And for that I can give thanks, even on bad days (I hope). I try, anyway. Sometimes I don’t get there.
You say old age is a concept largely defined by the people who have never lived it. You’re approaching your 60th year; how has your perception of growing old changed?
I thought life for older people was defined by decline. But none of the elders defined their lives that way. Only other people did. They all lived for the things they could still do, not what they’d lost.
Do you believe people today are in need of this age-related wisdom?
For most of human history, most societies sought wisdom from their oldest members. We’re in an odd experiment in which we seek it from Google, and think of old age as a problem to be fixed, not a source of wisdom to be cherished. I’m delighted that in this dark year, the elders offer a message of resilience and happiness.
Printed as “Back Chat: John Leland”, Spring 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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