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Happiness Lessons From the Oldest Old

A new book explores one New York Times writer's life-changing year with the elderly

Author John Leland with his friend Fred

Nicole Bengiveno/New York Times

'Happiness Is a Choice You Make' author John Leland (right) with Fred Jones, an elder from the book.

Newly divorced at 55 and living alone, New York Times writer John Leland felt unmoored as he struggled to come to terms with caring for his elderly mother.

Then he began work on a series of articles about people 85 and older, focusing on six elders from different backgrounds. He visited them with no real agenda but listening. And the lessons he ultimately gleaned in “gratitude and resilience and purpose” not only helped him sort out his own midlife difficulties but also formed the heart of his new book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.

From an isolated, mobility-challenged World War II vet who, Leland found, always cheered him up, to the 92-year-old immigrant filmmaker dynamo who lived by the motto, “Have a good drink and don’t get too serious,” each of the oldest old made a deep impression. Here, Leland shares how they helped upend his world view.

Did you expect to find all this wisdom when you started?

Absolutely not. This was going to be a story about the aches, pains and loneliness of old age. Over the course of the year, different stories came out. The hardships were there, but they were the context for people’s lives, not the lives themselves.

There are a lot of books on happiness. How is yours different?

This is about my experience and what I learned from these six people. The lessons are not that complicated. I’ve encountered them in the past. But they’ve sunk in now. They have names, faces and lives attached to them.

So what makes these older people wiser than the rest of us?

I think they’ve outlived the distractions that bother us when we’re younger. Nobody is upset because they can’t have that $600 pair of shoes. It’s like the idea of Buddhist transcendence: You give up things that aren’t important to focus on what is. If we can do that when we’re younger — and we can — it just makes our lives better.

You’re the main caregiver for your 89-year-old mother — a role you didn’t embrace at first. What changed?

I don’t think it’s a one-way street anymore. I don’t think she’s the person who needs care, and I’m the person who gives care. She’s my mother, and I get to spend time with her.

How did she feel about the series? Did your reporting have an effect on her?

No, she knows more about this than I do. She knows what it’s like to be old. She would always ask me, “Isn’t it depressing talking to all these old people?” And I’d say no and explain.

You have a new girlfriend, right?

I do! And I think I’m more accessible to her because of the project. It was a fairly new relationship when I started.

What was one of the more difficult aspects of writing the book?

I always had to test myself to see if I could live up to the talk I was talking. Was I really happier? Could I, over time, live the lessons I shared? I find I can.

What was your attitude toward old age in the past?

I had a very dim view of it. I used to think I’ll be like the person I am now, but my body will break down and I’ll run out of money.

And today?

I think old age is a continuation of life, not a waiting room for death. I wake up now, and there are challenges, and I need to improvise and make the best of them. That will be the case however old I get.