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The Cassia Life: Reflections on Happiness as a Choice

September 26, 2019

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

Exploring the territory known as the pursuit of happiness, most specifically how as seniors we get there, or don’t, was the subject of my previous blog. The book Happiness is a choice You Make by John Leland, a writer for the  New York Times, was reviewed, lifting up the views and experiences of the author himself and persons in his study panel of six advanced-age elders.

In an interview, Leland remarks, “All six experienced declines in their minds and bodies.  But they managed to find contentment despite their circumstances rather than because of them.  As Karl Pillemer of Cornell says, they manage to be happy in spite of their challenges, rather than thinking they could be happy if only things were different. Not that they’re always happy. But they make their lives in what is, rather than what isn’t but might be.

“The trick isn’t trying to stay young,” contends Leland: “ Nobody stays young.”
All well and good, of course, but the question quickly arises, how down-home practical are these concepts right here in the center of the USA, by ourselves and our neighbors. You decide:
Kathy McGrane, 74, a resident of Augustana Apartments in downtown Minneapolis, is usually out and about in her complex of buildings rather than sitting alone in her apartment. “Generally, the key for me is keeping active,” Kathy says. She attends mass twice a week and volunteers for committees, at the moment serving on her resident council’s food committee.

Four years ago her husband passed away. “Overcoming the loss and starting to live alone were difficult,” she relates. It appears for the most part that happiness has returned for her.
Asked the happiness question, another resident answered with a question of her own: “Do you mean jubilant happy or contentment happy?”She went on to explain that in the short run she has some of both, implying that happiness in the long-term is more difficult to achieve.

At my dining room lunch table a small group of men in their high 80s and low 90’s expressed a range of views. Bert said, “Most of my people are now gone, however one couple has purposefully stayed close, occasionally sending a package and visiting me each year on my birthday. It helps.”

David related that sons who come to visit regularly have provided him with purpose. A pet dog that needs regular care and that loves ice cream also provides reason for living and for being happy.

Oliver observed that choosing happiness isn’t a sure thing. Making the choice doesn’t assure success.
For me, at the lunch table, I told the group about my reluctant move to Minnesota some years ago, but that in spite of myself the move was a happiness builder for myself and my family.

Retiree Conrad deFiebre explained how he pursues happiness. ”I am a skeptical optimist, tending toward acceptance,” he says. “I’m big on the idea of free grace, meaning when I goof up there is redemption. It can bring contentment.”

I wish you could meet Susan Johnson in person. She is one of the most positive, cheerful, animated persons in my apartment building. Yet, Susan is quadriplegic. On February 22, 2013, all four of her hands and feet were amputated in a life-saving surgery following organ shutdown due to kidney failure. Her blood pressure dropped to near zero, temperature climbed to105, and the hospital stay lasted seven months. Pain?  “Excruciating,” she answered.

Wearing prosthetic hands and feet that enable near-normal activity, she quickly enters into conversation, greets others with a smile and sincerity, and readily accepts help.

Most of our interview time was spent talking about her full life now. It includes living by herself, a fully supportive family, a book cub, music involvement, public speaking to groups of amputees, seeing medical professionals for further treatment several times a week, including highly technical work toward permanent prosthetic hands that will tie into her natural nerve system and look and function like real. “With fingers!” she exclaims.

Susan Johnson is contagious happiness.