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The Cassia Life: Happiness is a Choice You Make, Says Book’s Author

September 18, 2019

The Cassia Life
By Jesse Watkins, Cassia’s own resident blogger

I wish I could read aloud to you from the book Happiness is a Choice You Make. Released in 2018, the 250-pager was written by New York Times reporter John Leland and is chock full of “Lessons from a year among the oldest old,” says a subhead on the cover.  Note the wording: “Lessons from …,” not “Lessons for …,” or “Lessons to …”  Leland chose six elders in their 80s and 90s and reflects gently on their positive methods and reactions to aging.

No preaching here. Leland writes to us in a compassionate, authentic voice. By telephone on Monday morning I reached him at his desk at the Times and was given permission to reprint several paragraphs from the book text itself as well as portions from a questions/answers section in the back.

Asked “Do you really believe that people can choose to be happy?  That seems too easy.”  In print, Leland responds: “We have some influence over how we process ordinary loss.  We can take it personally, as a punishment visited only on us, or we can view it as a universal experience, something we share with everybody around us. If choosing happiness seems too big, break it down into smaller components.  We can choose to be grateful; to spend time with people we care about; to dwell less on things we don’t have and more on those we do.  And we can follow Ping’s example (Ping Wong, one of the six)  of adjusting to the world as it comes at us, with the body we have and the resources we have, rather than lamenting that the world isn’t different or our bodies aren’t different. That’s life. Even if each of us has a set range of happiness, all these things can push us closer to the top of our range.”

The trick isn’t trying to stay young, contends Leland: “Nobody stays young. But if you mean energetic and engaged, you can start by not associating those traits with youth.  When a 90-year-old is energetic, that’s not being young--it’s acting out that one dimension of 90.  And when a 40-year-old forgets a name, she isn’t having a senior moment, she’s just forgetting a name, as people do at any age.  How we think about old age, and how we talk about it, has a profound effect on our quality of life. That’s not just when you’re old, but now whatever your age.”

Addressing another important senior issue, the declining ability to move around under your own power, Leland reflects on the experience of one woman in his study group: “The wheelchair liberated her and enabled her to go to museums and plays, often at a discount.  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 wlth them. And we’re all on short time; older people just understand this more viscerally.”

Leland interviewee Jonas Mekas described happiness as a state of living in the present. Jonas survived two great depressions, first when the Soviets invaded his native Lithuania, and then when he was captured by the Nazis and put in a forced labor camp in Germany.  After seeing the suffering caused by human drive, he found happiness not in striving for conquest but in relations with other people.

John Leland’s book, Happiness is a Choice You Make, ISBN: 978-0-374-53819-4, is available by order at $16 plus shipping (paperback) from a Barnes & Noble retail store or by way of the retailer’s web site, BN.com.