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Health & Wellness

Happiness and Aging: What One Author Learned

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A few years ago, New York Times reporter John Leland began following the lives of six New Yorkers ages 85 and up.

As he started working on a series for the paper about one of the fastest growing age groups in the United States, he expected the topics he covered would be fairly predictable.

“I went into it the way I'd written about aging before, and how most people write about aging: I’ll do a piece about this problem about being 85 and up, and then I'll do a story about this [other] problem of being 85 and up. And then I’ll do a piece on falls and then I’ll do a piece on isolation and maybe I’ll do a story on dementia, and then I’ll do a story on family problems,” he says. “I thought that would be a perfectly balanced series.”

He quickly found out that he had a lot to learn from the group. Rather than uncovering a nest of problems, he discovered a fountain of inspiration. "I've found my life to be much fuller and richer and happier for spending time with these elders," he says. So rich, in fact, that he didn't want the project to end. So he wrote a book. "Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old," which came out in January.   

We asked Leland what he learned through his work. Here’s what he shared. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Get Old: If you were to narrow down the top lessons that you learned over the course of the reporting project and the writing of the book, what would those be?

John Leland: I think the big overarching lesson is that whatever is going on in our life, we don't have control over it, but we do have a lot of say in how we process it. At some point, bad things are going to happen to all of us, no matter how charmed a life we have. But you can live as if that bad thing is your life, or you can live in the idea that all those things you can do outside of that are your life. You can think, gosh, I'm losing my hearing, or my eyesight’s getting bad, or I can't run the marathon like I used to. Or you can really live for the things that you can still do.

And then there are some lessons that follow from that, and one is that is we can live in gratitude all the time. There was a man in the book, Fred Jones, who lost two toes to gangrene, and he lived in a walk-up apartment so that was really, really hard on him. And every time I saw Fred he just talked about how happy he was. He said if you're not happy now, you're not happy. I said Fred, what’s the best part of the day for you? And he said waking up in the morning and saying thank God for another day, on my way to 110. 

Get Old: What else stuck with you?  

John Leland: I think having a sense of purpose—what you want to live for, what gets you going in the morning— is incredibly important. It's true now and it's true when we're 80 or 90. I saw this in Jonas Mekas [in the series]. He was going to pursue beauty. He was in Nazi labor camps in his 20s and in U.N. displaced persons camps after that. And Jonas said I’m glad all that happened because it landed me in the life I have now. And because he’s living with that purpose to make his art, Jonas's is just completely vital and I can't keep up with him.

And if I could single out one more thing, I think it's accepting that we're going to die. That sounds like it's morbid. I think it's exactly the opposite. It means that all these moments we have are finite, and if you are 92 years old and you're listening to this Wagner opera that you love, you know that you might not have many other opportunities to listen to it. So you listen as fully as you can. That’s no more true at 92 than at 42. It's just more obvious to you. Death isn’t our enemy; it’s our friend because it makes life more precious. I never really embraced that until I spent time with these elders.

Get Old: Is there any advice you would give readers?

John Leland: Whatever age you are, live for the things you can do. And not for the things that you’ve lost or can't do anymore. And that means giving up envy of your neighbor or your younger self, and just embracing the beautiful things you can do.

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