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

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

An extraordinary look at what it means to grow old and a heartening guide to well-being, Happiness Is a Choice You Make weaves together the stories and wisdom of six New Yorkers who number among the "oldest old"-- those eighty-five and up.In 2015, when the award-winning journalist John Leland set out on behalf of The New York Times to meet members of America's fastest-grow...

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Title:Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old
Author:John Leland
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Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old Reviews

  • Sharon May

    Thanks so much to NetGalley, Sarah Crichton Books, and John Leland for the opportunity to read and review this book - should be a must read!

    John Leland, a journalist for the New York Times, spent a year with a select group of "elders" - those oldest of the old in our society to see what lessons they could impart on the rest of us. What followed is this book - we get a glimpse at our society, the government and families treat this segment of the population and how we can all do better.

    What is mos

    Thanks so much to NetGalley, Sarah Crichton Books, and John Leland for the opportunity to read and review this book - should be a must read!

    John Leland, a journalist for the New York Times, spent a year with a select group of "elders" - those oldest of the old in our society to see what lessons they could impart on the rest of us. What followed is this book - we get a glimpse at our society, the government and families treat this segment of the population and how we can all do better.

    What is most to be gained by reading this book is the lesson that we all need to live like we are dying - since we all are. Easier said than done but the small lessons in this book - be grateful, look at what you can do and not what you can't, help others and let others help you - can make big impact in our relationships. Since I have a mother who falls into this demographic, I learned lots of things that I hope will stick and improve my relationship with my mother going forward (although it's great, we're starting to navigate issues foreign to both of us).

    Highly recommended!

  • Lynne Spreen

    is the account of a yearlong conversation between a New York Times journalist and six people who are among the “oldest old” in America. The journalist, John Leland, was 57 as of the the time of this writing, and going through his own challenges. He was hoping to learn from these elders, and to share his findings with us. He did both brilliantly.

    Leland writes with compassion, humor, and incisiveness. I knew I was home when, in the very beginning of the book, his el

    is the account of a yearlong conversation between a New York Times journalist and six people who are among the “oldest old” in America. The journalist, John Leland, was 57 as of the the time of this writing, and going through his own challenges. He was hoping to learn from these elders, and to share his findings with us. He did both brilliantly.

    Leland writes with compassion, humor, and incisiveness. I knew I was home when, in the very beginning of the book, his elderly interview subjects answered his questions with platitudes or reminiscing about their youth, but he didn't settle for that. "...I was interested in what their lives were like now...How did they get through the day, and what were their hopes for the morrow? How did they manage...Was there a threshold at which life was no longer worth living?" He also writes with humor which leavens the weight of the topic.

    This was my main takeaway: It seems regular old people, not heroes or geniuses, but just everyday elders, might come to some ways of being that are essential for a good end of days (and might enhance our younger years as well.) What they know looks simple on the outside, but there’s an underlying complexity that takes a lifetime to develop and that the elders may not even sense they have. To them, it’s just life.

    Random highlights:

    --Leland writes, “Old age is a concept largely defined by people who have never lived it.” In other words, youth sees age-related decline and either recoils in horror/grief or conjures mythic fallacies to explain it. Yet Lelend, reporting back from the foreign land of the ultra-aged, says it's neither. It’s just a development. You work around it and keep living. No big deal.

    --The olders aren’t really wise. They’re just so experienced at adaptation that they do it without thinking, which is actually sheer genius. If we youngers weren’t so busy celebrating 90-year-old marathoners and other such freaks of nature, we’d notice the greater lessons available from and for more average humans.

    --The way elders see themselves holds the key to peace about what we fear in aging. For example: “...all (of the olders) seemed to redraw the line between what was acceptable and what was too much, pushing it just past their level of disability. Health problems that looked devastating to me looked to them like a part of life’s progress after 85--what was truly bad was always a step down the road.”

    --Another example: We look at a widow and think, how horrible that she has to live every day knowing her husband is gone. But olders, while they may relive grief, spend more time remembering the good. And how often have we heard that memories from our early lives stay with us more clearly than the newer ones? What a blessing!

    --Another: youth might draw back in horror at the short time horizon elders know they have, but for elders, this shortened horizon enriches the enjoyment of the now. For youth, who may have a sprawling 50 years to live, they wonder which paths to take, how best to maximize their work, etc. They're tormented at every turn by critical decisions. In contrast, for elders, their time limitation serves as a tightly bundled blanket; comforting in a weird way. They don’t have to worry about moving to Los Angeles or freezing their eggs. They have only to maximize today.

    --Another: lack of a mate might seem like a relief rather than a tragedy. “I can serve my own needs; I don’t have to worry about or wait on anybody else. I have long blocks of time in which I can just think, or whatever.”

    --Another: loneliness, like grief, regret, or frustration, comes and goes. It doesn’t define them. And rather than feel lonely, some decline may occur in the desire or need to socialize. I'm generalizing, but that seems like it would be a relief.

    These are random observations from the book. If I tried to highlight all the passages I found profound or valuable, it’d be pages and pages long. I highly recommend this book.

  • Debbi

    I listened to this book on Audible. The Narrator seemed to be a good fit for the material. I had read some of the author's profiles in the New York Times and found them interesting. I like John Leland's writing style and enjoyed hearing about the relationships he cultivated with his six subjects. By the end of the book some of the stories felt a little repetitive and occasionally grim and yet after finishing, I think it was time well spent with several gems of wisdom scattered along the way.

  • BOOKLOVER10

    John Leland wrote a well-received newspaper series about "the oldest old," people who are eight-five and up. "Happiness is a Choice You Make" originated from his year-long interaction with six individuals in their eighties and nineties. Some are ill, while others are relatively healthy, if you discount the aches and pains that afflict everyone sooner or later. Ninety-one year old John Sorenson has lived for forty-eight years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and still mourns his late partner,

    John Leland wrote a well-received newspaper series about "the oldest old," people who are eight-five and up. "Happiness is a Choice You Make" originated from his year-long interaction with six individuals in their eighties and nineties. Some are ill, while others are relatively healthy, if you discount the aches and pains that afflict everyone sooner or later. Ninety-one year old John Sorenson has lived for forty-eight years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and still mourns his late partner, Walter. Eighty-seven year old Frederick Jones, who is diabetic and has a weak heart, lives alone in a walk-up (he has difficulty navigating stairs). Helen Moses, ninety, lives in a Bronx nursing home, and is thrilled that her fellow resident, Howie, whom she cares for deeply, is there for her. Ping Wong lives comfortably in a low-rent apartment in Gramercy Park and has a home attendant coming in to assist her. Ninety-one year old Ruth Willig is in an assisted living facility in Brooklyn, New York. Finally, Jonas Mekas, ninety-two, is a filmmaker and writer who is energetic enough to remain independent and active.

    Although "Happiness is a Choice" is engrossing, timely, and even darkly humorous, the writing could have been sharper, more concise, and less meandering. Still, Leland's work of non-fiction is worth looking at, for several reasons. Since life expectancy has gone up markedly, we should think about what it would be like to be octogenarians and even nonagenarians. How would we ward off loneliness; pay our bills; run a household; keep track of our medications; deal with relatives; cope with our dwindling physical capabilities; and find joy? The author does not sugarcoat the negatives. Some of his interviewees candidly state that they have had it, and are ready to call it quits. However, there are an ample number of upbeat messages here: Live in the moment, but cherish your memories; learn to give and take graciously; and try to adapt to the changes that come with advanced age. To sum up: "We can focus on what we've lost or the life we have now."

    "Happiness is a Choice You Make" is sometimes painful to read. It reminds us that if we are destined to live for many decades, we may be in for some challenging times, medically and psychologically. Still, it is enlightening to learn from people who have been around long enough to see the big picture. The most successful among the elders engage in pleasurable activities, maintain a certain amount of optimism, and stick with those relationships that are emotionally nurturing. An expert on aging warns that "social isolation kills," so staying involved with friends and loved ones is a key to boosting one's morale and remaining invested in the future.

  • Jane

    Being in the moment, enjoying what I have, and not lamenting what I don't are all lessons I can get behind. I don't gain anything by wishing circumstances were different.

  • Kathy

    I am as surprised as John Leland was at the lessons learned when he undertook (as a New York Times journalist) spending a year visiting and interviewing six elderly people. The people chosen were a very diverse group; married, single, several ethnicities, some with health and/or money issues, some without.

    He expected to find that the elderly among us are a rather glum, plodding lot, focused on their aches and pains. What he found instead were engaged, vital people, who have learned to take pleas

    I am as surprised as John Leland was at the lessons learned when he undertook (as a New York Times journalist) spending a year visiting and interviewing six elderly people. The people chosen were a very diverse group; married, single, several ethnicities, some with health and/or money issues, some without.

    He expected to find that the elderly among us are a rather glum, plodding lot, focused on their aches and pains. What he found instead were engaged, vital people, who have learned to take pleasure in the now, because they don't take tomorrow for granted. Overall, he notes that petty distractions seem to have been wiped away, their wants and needs are much more simplified and they are far less interested or caught up in material things. Physical disabilities are taken in stride because it is their normal - they don't fear it. They value their friendships and relationships, but also value their time alone. One participant stated (paraphrasing here) that they felt sorry for the young as they have more worries because they don't know what will happen in the future. Whereas the elderly don't worry about it. They know they can handle life's set-backs as they've been through many. They love that their days are their own to spend how they wish. They are generally happy with their lives; having a greater sense of contentment and are more satisfied with what they have.

    I love that John Leland expresses his joy and humbleness at the lessons this group of individuals taught him. He expected to come away from the visits depressed; instead he found he came away refreshed, with a new perspective on his own life. He's lucky to have learned the lessons the elderly can teach us all.

    Our American society tends to minimize, and often outright ignore, the elderly. Shame on us!! They have so much to teach us. This book is a good beginning!

    Many thanks to NetGalley, John Leland and Sarah Crichton Books for allowing me to read an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own.

  • Ericka Clouther

    This is an interesting, thought-provoking book about old age and how to get the most quality of life. There is some science in it, but it's not a science-based book. Instead, it's based on a small number of long-term interviews. To a lesser extent, it's about facing the inevitability of death, but the focus here is on how to confront life now in order to be prepared for whatever form death takes. There are some valuable thoughts worth considering, and it has an overall inspiring tone I think a l

    This is an interesting, thought-provoking book about old age and how to get the most quality of life. There is some science in it, but it's not a science-based book. Instead, it's based on a small number of long-term interviews. To a lesser extent, it's about facing the inevitability of death, but the focus here is on how to confront life now in order to be prepared for whatever form death takes. There are some valuable thoughts worth considering, and it has an overall inspiring tone I think a lot of people would enjoy.

    For me, it doesn't go deep enough, it isn't scientific enough, and it doesn't make my top meaning-of-life books. (But it did just inspire me to go back and add that tag to a bunch of books.)

  • Kristine

    Words of wisdom from 6 elders as part of Leland's 85 and Up series. Their stories are neither fully feast or famine (complete ability or disability) and, quite frankly, it's so much better that way. Each emphasize the necessity to keep busy with the hobbies and interests that they love, to readjusting goals and daily activities to their personal, physical, and mental capabilities. Relative to the

    Words of wisdom from 6 elders as part of Leland's 85 and Up series. Their stories are neither fully feast or famine (complete ability or disability) and, quite frankly, it's so much better that way. Each emphasize the necessity to keep busy with the hobbies and interests that they love, to readjusting goals and daily activities to their personal, physical, and mental capabilities. Relative to the title, happiness should be found in the present moment, intimacy and close friendships, with individual, interview-format life stories that are tied somewhat to scientific/mental health stats on aging.

  • Kristen

    Happiness is a Choice You Makes is an enjoyable book about the the authors interviews and interactions with several of New York's "oldest old", people over age 85. It was very interesting to hear the author's take on what he learned from these people: what their lives are like, how they feel about being old, and the ways that the find (or struggle with) purpose and satisfaction in their daily lives.

    To best sum up:

    Be grateful for small things

    live for today

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