Like many baby boomers, John Leland is a front-row observer of aging as the son of a 90-year-old mother. Unlike most boomers, he felt driven to expand his understanding of getting old in America; the blessings and insults, the joys and literal pains. So, Leland, a reporter at the New York Times, spent a year with six New Yorkers ages 85 and up, then turned his research into a yearlong series and the book, “Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old.” Last fall, Leland spoke at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, sponsored by the Under the Radar Foundation. I caught up with him recently to ask why he felt “changed” by this experience and what we might learn, now, to live richer lives.
Q: You were surprised by much of what the elders taught you. What bubbles up to the top?
A: I went into this to follow these people for a year and write about the hardships of old age. We’re bombarded with messages about how hard it is to grow old, with pitches for products to “fix” the problem of aging, but none of them defined themselves that way. Only their doctors, kids and journalists did.
Q: Still, you don’t sugarcoat growing old. For many, it’s hell. They can’t walk up stairs. Most of their friends are dead. And yet, they are in many ways happier than the rest of us. I think you used the term “happy in spite of, instead of happy if only.”
A: I love that distinction. It’s from Karl Pillemer at Cornell University, who was a big influence on the book. If you think, “I could be happy if all my problems are solved,” you’ll never be happy. You’ll just have new reasons to be unsatisfied. But as I spent time with the elders, I found their contentment was less an absence of hardship than a presence of meaning. If they found their life had value, however they defined it, then even suffering could be part of their happiness, because in suffering we learn who we are. So I felt I owed it to them to be as clear-eyed as I could about their hardships.
Q: Yet, there’s so much loss. How do they face that over and over?
A: I think that, as we get on in life, we’re forced to accept that loss is a part of life, like a brutal patch of weather in Minneapolis. You might not choose it, but it’s something you share with everyone around you, not something sinister that you’ve been singled out for. So we focus more deeply on the people and things that really mean something to us. I was struck that none of the elders I followed spoke of their professional accomplishments, which I imagine had meant a lot to them at the time. None talked about her new kitchen or his connections to someone famous. What a relief to give that up.
Q: You note that the elders are skilled at “selective optimization with compensation,” a fancy way to say they don’t sweat what they don’t have physically, emotionally, financially, etc. Why do we wait until we’re 85 to adopt this strategy?
A: We spend way too much of our lives stewing about the things that we can’t do, rather than enjoying the things we can. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University says that when we’re younger, we put our energy into things that haven’t happened yet. So we focus on what isn’t, not on what is, and this leads to a lot of dissatisfaction. It can be motivating, but also corrosive.
Q: How long did it take for the elders to grow so comfortable with you that they’d say and do anything?
A: About six months before the first story came out in the New York Times. I was worried after that they’d become self-conscious. But I found people kind of welcoming of somebody asking them about their lives. A lot of people feel like, “Now I’m invisible.” Then someone comes along and says that the things you think about are important. Besides, at that point you have so many doctors, your life’s an open book.
Q: A strong theme of your book is living with purpose. What does that mean to you?
A: It’s an awareness of relationships with other people, in which doing something that’s beneficial to you also benefits them, and doing something that benefits them also benefits you. Living with purpose means living in this awareness.
Q: Your mother makes several appearances in your book. Hard to remain objective?
A: Absolutely terrifying. I’m pretty good at being able to separate from the people I write about. This time, I couldn’t do that and I wouldn’t do it. And it changed my relationship with my mother, greatly improved it. Instead of me trying to help my mother, do things for her, it made it more of a two-way relationship.
Q: To that point, a lot of your subjects shared how hard it was to ask for help, even if they clearly needed it. How do we walk that delicate line with our own parents?
A: If we are always doing for our elders, we’re incurring a debt on them they have no way to pay off. Instead, we might think about ways to enable them to help themselves. It’s more interdependence and accepting help with gratitude.
Q: You refer to a study that found a “striking correlation” between people’s attitudes toward old age and how they fare in later years. Positive views led to lower blood pressure, less stress and so forth. Also the opposite is true. So, how do we wisely use that information?
A: Spend time with older people and listen to them, really listen, because they’ve lived long enough to know something about life. They’re the experts about old age. If they can find joy and gratitude and resilience in this moment right now, then so can we.