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Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old
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Archive: Other Books > Happiness Is a Choice You Make - John Leland - 4 stars

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Nikki | 661 comments [This would have made a great choice for last month's 'life' tag...]

I grabbed this on impulse on a recent trip to the library – the title was intriguing, the cover blurb suggested that it might offer some uplifting advice, and a quick flick inside showed that the writing is thoughtful and intelligent.

The book is an expanded account of a year-long journalism project for the New York Times, in which the author documented the lives of several of New York’s “oldest old” (85+). Here, as well as brief biographical sketches and anecdotes from his time with each of the elders he got to know, he devotes a chapter to the lessons (“a prescription for life at any age”) that he learned from each of them.

“Each elder had different lessons to teach: from Fred, the power of gratitude; from Ping, the choice to be happy; from John, acceptance of death; from Helen, learning to love and be needed; from Jonas, living with purpose; and from Ruth, nourishing the people who matter. For centuries societies had relied on elders for these lessons and more. It was only in recent times that this wisdom went unheard. I wasn’t blazing new ground, but rediscovering some ancient connections. The blazing part was how happy the lessons made me, and how I wished I’d learned them earlier.”

Also, “This may be the one-sentence essence of what I learned in my year among the oldest old: to shut down the noise and fears and desires that buffet our days and think about how amazing, really amazing, life is.”

One of the more interesting ideas addressed in the book is that the decline and diminishing that tends to come with old age can lead to not just a sense of loss, but also helpful shifts in attitude. For example, the author describes his initial frustration at his mother’s choice to get a motorized wheelchair rather than attempt to continue walking and exercise more. After seeing how liberating she finds it, however, he observes:

“Here was a lesson in acceptance and adaptation. In a culture that constantly tells us to overcome our limitations, sometimes it is more productive to find ways to live with them. For people on short time, short-term fixes—or acceptance—are sometimes the best answer. And we’re all on short time; older people just understand this more viscerally.”

Similarly, nearing the end of life grants a fresh perspective:

“Seeing their future this way stripped away any illusions they might have had about themselves—that they were really some better person waiting to be brought into being, richer, happier, better-looking, thinner, more beloved. Instead, they could look in the mirror and see who they really were; all the future would do was pare them back even further.”

Despite his enthusiasm for their impact on his own life, the conclusions drawn here about the lives of the elders themselves were sometimes a little less optimistic than the marketing led me to believe, but on balance I still felt that this was a humane and insightful book, and worth a read.


message 2: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2208 comments I love your review Nikki - this sounds like an amazing book


Nikki | 661 comments KateNZ wrote: "I love your review Nikki - this sounds like an amazing book"

Thanks! It's certainly given me a useful alternative perspective to consider...


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