00:00 You’re listening to the live happier, longer podcast, episode 54
00:15 Welcome to the live happier, longer podcast we’re your host Molly Watts and Angela McDade. We are here to help you build the five habits of happier, longer life and to create your habit mindset, starting now.
00:27 Hey, Angela. Hey Molly. How are you? I’m fine. Wow. How are you? You sound as though something’s wrong with me. That’s not very cool. Well, I’m suffering from a bit of a laryngitis issue. Just a small one. I have a voice. This is much better than it has. This is the improvement there. Yeah. This is the improved version. I’m happy about that. Yeah, you go. Happiness is a choice you make. Yeah. Did you know that? I did. Well, we are ecstatic because we have the opportunity tonight to talk to John Leland, who is a reporter for the New York times and also the author of the book. “Happiness is a choice you make. Lessons from a year among the oldest old”, and it is a fabulous book. Yeah. It’s, it’s so full of full of lessons, but the stories themselves of these six elders, plus his, mother. Yeah. And how they have affected him and the lessons that he learned is just, it’s, it’s great .and it’s great lessons for everyone really. Yeah. I mean we’re sure reading through them, obviously we find a lot of alignment between who he spoke with in those elders and the habits that we know create that optimistic outlook of aging. Um, and hopefully creating that happier, longer life.
01:59 What we found and you know, in this book he shares, just as we’ve talked about, these people don’t have, you know, cupcake lives. Yeah. On the contrary. Yeah. Lots of adversity in their lives. Yeah. And even, you know, as right at the time yeah. At the time, but also their, their past have been full of adversities. But they all shared a wisdom with him and really has shaped how he sees things now in terms of the fact that happiness is a choice that you make every day and in every moment. And it’s available to us as we know all the time. Yeah. So here is our conversation with John Leland.
02:49 Hey John. Hi John.
02:51 Hi guys. How are you? You are awesome. Thank you so much. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. We are excited to have you on the podcast because we know that, uh, your book happiness is a choice you make is just aligned so well with not only our audience that our message as well. So we thank you in advance for being with us.
03:13 Thanks for having me.
03:15 Yeah, we want to start off with, um, just the story behind the book and how you came about. We both read the book and we know that it started as, as a job for you. Um, but well, how did that come about? Was it something that you were given or did you actively seek out and you know, or did it start from
03:42 I love this question. Thanks for asking. I’m a reporter at the New York times and this began with a, an editor had asked me to do a series based on the 2010 census we were starting to get, this was around 2013, 2014. We were starting to get new levels of data out in the census. And the number that jumped out at me was the growth in the population age 85 and over. uh, I look at this number and I say like when I was born there were fewer than a million. Now there’s a little more than 6 million in the U S so if there were suddenly six times as many teenagers running around and be a little scary, and I think we’d want to look. Yeah. So I, what I realized was that I didn’t know much about the lives of these people even being the child of, of one of them, you know, because almost everything we ever learned about old age comes from people who have never been old. Right. It’s like OK, makes sense that people have degrees. We love this, but like,
04:50 well, this is the, this population is the first one too. I mean, most of their parents never reached the ages that they’re reaching. So it’s kind of uncharted territory.
04:59 That’s right. So they are pioneers. There are people who have been to the top of Mount Everest and we want to know like what did they see there? What was it like? What was their experience, what did they learn? What can they share with those of us who, I haven’t been there, but I have to admit that I started this the way we in journalism do, which is, uh, we’ll do a series about how hard it is getting older, right? . Because that’s the story. We know how to tell all the things we lose as we get older. Our vision declines, our hearing declines, our energy declines, mobility declines. It’s w you know, I, okay as a journalist, like I thought, like I can see a whole line up of malady of the month articles like lined up in front of me and I know how to tell those stories.
05:59 I know how they going to unfold. And so I went out and spent a couple months just meeting as many people over 85 as I could. And I went to assisted living centers and nursing homes and the Jewish community centers. And why IWCAs, the public libraries and friends of friends and people’s websites, just as many as people as I could find. And I narrowed it down to six people and with the idea that I’d followed them for a year and I would, you know, see all these hardships that they had because what else were they gonna have. Somehow like a couple months into it, I realized that the people had a lot of the hardships that I expected, but that’s not how any of them define their lives. You know, nobody in a wheelchair defines themselves as the woman in the wheelchair. They defined themselves as the woman who loves her plants or who always made the great pot roast or always did this and now she gets around in the wheelchair. And so I realized that I was looking at this the wrong way. I was looking at it through the eyes of a middle aged person rather than trying to get a idea of what life at 85 or 90 or 92 look like through the, the person who is 85 or 92.
07:26 as a 92 year old. Yeah.
07:29 And it was hard to make that jump because that’s not what we do as journalists. Right. The people who are watching that scene and reporting on it from our own perspective rather than, uh, acknowledging that the people who are experiencing it, are experts in ways that we never will be. So I went, I had to do was give up the idea that I was the expert and accept that they knew things about what was it the top of Mount Everest that I didn’t.
08:02 Yeah. And let them tell you their story and not have the narration from your side.
08:11 and once I did that, it took a lot of pressure off me. Like I don’t have to be the expert anymore. I’m no longer the chef at that five star restaurant. I’m sitting there and other people are cooking that meal for me and I get to learn from it and savor it and enjoy it and just be grateful for the time I got into these people’s presence.
08:32 Yeah. So I want to talk about each of them briefly because I know that you learned lessons from each of them and in specific ways, and you share those in your book and we’re going to link to your book in our notes and it’ll be easy for everybody to find it. But I want to go a little deeper on each of these people and hear a little more from your personal perspective and we’ll talk about them in the order that they are, uh, that, that I think they’re in the book as well.
08:59 The first one, I want to talk with you a little bit as Fred, and I know that Fred, um, has since passed away, but I found his story just so amazing because of his physical challenges and the fact that he was still living in a three-story walkup and doing that, I think I was like, well, he’s still moving. You know, he’s still doing it even though it’s such a challenge for him. And I think it spoke to his, his testimony for his strength, but what obviously what was so endearing about him was his optimistic attitude and his gratitude. Thankfulness.
09:38 Oh, Fred Jones really had that. And he was such a great lesson to a great teacher for me. He was 87 when I met him living alone in a walkup apartment up two flights of stairs in the process of losing two toes to gangrene. Yeah. His closest daughter was dying of stage four breast cancer. And this is the story I expected to go out and report. Bad health, limited mobility, you know, becoming socially isolated. Right. And then I asked Fred, you know, just to get a comparison, what’s the happiest time of your life? And Fred said right now.
10:16 You know, and it was such an amazing thing for me. It’s like how was it that Fred, with all these problems, as difficult as his life was, that he thought this was the best time in his life. And I talked to him about this, you know, it was hard to get Fred to really elaborate on that too much. But one time he said to me, he said, my, I asked him his favorite part of the day. My favorite part of the day is waking up in the morning and saying thank God for another day. Yeah. My way to 110 Oh, if there is a prescription for a good life at 87 or 57 or 37 it’s giving thanks for what you have.
10:59 Yeah, yeah, yeah.
11:01 So what, what did, what did Fred get thanks for? Another day. You know, something so simple. Not, he wasn’t giving thanks because you know, that big check came in or you know, he had wall-to-wall running amorous adventures, you know, because he didn’t have that at that point. Yeah. He thought about it a lot, especially the amorous adventures, but he just loved that. It just, it was just another day. There was so much missing from his days. You know, he couldn’t do so many of the things he had once done, but he, he recognized that, that the moment he was in right now had everything you needed at this moment. You would’ve needed more. But right now this was it. And what a great thing that was. So, you know, we about like what makes a good life as we get older, maybe it’s a great cardiologist, but maybe it’s a sense of gratitude and if you have the choice of those two things, I think probably the person who has a sense of gratitude has a better life or may have a better life than the person who has a great cardiologist.
12:12 Yeah, I agree. One of the, one of the things you wrote in your book you said Fred was, giving thanks made him happy, which made him grateful, which made him happy. Which, you know, it was, I just, yeah, which I love because that daily habit number four for us is give and it’s all about gratitude. There’s, there’s lots of science. And I know in your book too, you shared lots of science. Um, dr Emmons and folks that have done a lot of research on gratitude and how it does actually physiologically impact your brain and your outlook and your ability to be happy.
12:50 Yeah. The, the science behind it is really compelling. I kind of hate the science in it. It doesn’t, it doesn’t appeal to me. But like if you think that that just giving thanks gives you lower blood pressure, better immune function, less inflammation, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Like if, if all you got out of it was that physical response to it, you know, there’s not a drug you can buy that will do all that for you. Right. No drug can do all that for you. Yeah.
13:25 But moreover you feel good right now when you, when you can be that. Thanks. So it’s gonna have feel good feeling immediately. And then the benefits on the, and then the benefits on the backend too. Yeah. Yeah.
13:40 I often think if we could learn any words in the English language sets. Thank you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. How can I help? If you can learn those four phrases and use them all in the course of the day, you’ll have had a good day.
13:59 Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I love the fact that, uh, you know, Fred who had more hardships than a lot of people was highly grateful. And I think it shows a lot to those of us who are blessed with so much. And then there’s people that have so much and don’t have that same gratitude appreciation. And uh, even in, in old age.
14:22 I know a lot of older people who don’t have that sense of gratitude. And when I was visiting Fred, I was thinking, why can’t they including my own mother, but we don’t. Why, why was it that my mother who had a lot more comfortable situation than Fred did? Why couldn’t she be as grateful as Fred was? And then at a certain point I said, why can’t I do that? Because I was, I didn’t have that either. And why was that? I was like, I’ve tried to impose this on my mother when it was really, um, much more within my, you know, uh, like my control to do yourself, practice that on my own. And you know, people always say, you know, preach the gospel talk if you must. So like be an example. And I could add my own, if I wanted to get my mother to do that, the best way to do that was to just practice it in my own life and try to be an example to other people around me. I don’t know quite how much that works either, but I know it’s working great for me.
15:26 Yeah, well that’s really at the bottom. You know, at the end of the day I can do it. That’s the most you can do. It’s the most important. Well, another person, the that that um, definitely I think taught you lessons about choosing happiness and choosing an attitude like that was Ping and even though her circumstances may not have been as dire in terms of, she had fairly, she’d got a pretty good, yeah, she landed in a pretty good spot in terms of having worked a really long hard life until she was 80 but then was reaping some benefits of that in terms of where she was living then,
16:08 This is ping Wong. Ping long was 90 when I met her and living on just $700 a month in social security. And she couldn’t afford that. She had bad arthritis. She had uh, her hips replaced and she couldn’t afford the lignocaine patches for sore joints. So she had him in half to make them last longer. And she was living alone. She’d lost her husband, her only son had been murdered in a department store in China. Really took it out of her. But you know, for all her losses, ping never defined herself by the things she lost and that wasn’t what she was living for. Ping. I had found a subsidized apartment in a building in New York or she paid like 200 something dollars a month in rent and she had a home attendant who took care of her seven hours every day that she didn’t have to pay for and she played the most important thing I think was the, she played Mahjong everyday with the same three women in her building.
17:17 Thought it for life that way is an ongoing Mahjong game with occasional health interruptions instead of thinking about it as, you know, declining health in which she played Mahjong. She saw her old age as being more comfortable when she was young and trying to balance work and family. So many people go through, especially so many women and the bills are piling up and you have no time to call your own. So ping was just a master at controlling her own situation. By the way she thought of it, and she once said to me, she said, I never think about the things I can’t reach. I know my time is limited. So the only thing I have to do is to enjoy myself. Like mahjong, I will do it until my last day. So there were so many things that ping would have wanted to do that she couldn’t do, including when I first met her.
18:15 The things she was looking forward to was going to Atlantic city with her family on this weekend that they did every year. And as the date got closer, her, her arthritis was hurting her too much. She felt she couldn’t get in that car, take that three hour drive. And then I had to think that if that were me and I had to give up this thing that really meant so much to me, I would just be stewing in my own pity, poor, poor pitiful me. But never did that. She said, well, okay, well it makes sense. Did you get old, do you have to give up certain things? And I gave it this up and then of course she ended up going having an amazing time and, and there was a grandchild or a great grandchild from China that she’d never seen before, was there.
19:06 And she was so immersed in this conversation with her relatives that she didn’t even think about the pain that she was saying that she was going in the car. So, you know, whatever came at Ping, she dealt with it with the resources she had and with the body she had. And she realized that that’s what she’d been doing all her life. That didn’t start when she was 90 when she, when you’re 20 and stuff comes at you, the stuff that comes at you as hard and you deal with it as best you can and you would love to have you no more physical strength, more monetary strength, more well, whatever strength, but you deal with them and however you do. Then the same is true at 20th it’s 50 and 70 and 90.
19:53 And I know that in the book you said that she taught you how to give up things that once seemed really important that no longer did choosing happiness and you know from things that were available to you as opposed to some of the false needs that might have been cropping up in your day to day life.
20:11 I think that’s right. That’s so much of what we do. We say I can be happy if only I have this right, or if I don’t have this, I can’t live a meaningful life. But you know, we look around us. There are people leading meaningful lives that don’t have those things. Why is it that they’re able to do it? And we can’t do it. Yes. Can we start to. You know, if you can take a step back and recalibrate and think, well, what matters is finding meaning in the things that I can do, not the things that I lost or that I can’t do. Cause there’s always things we’d love to do to have the, to experience that we can’t you, it can be, you know, uh, bill Gates, his son and a marathon are, and there’s still things that you would love to do that you can,
21:09 you cannot choose it all. You cannot do it all. And sitting around being disappointed about that is a waste of the, the day that you have that. And just like you said, her ability to recalibrate a is something that’s so fundamentally important, especially as we’re aging because things do go awry, you know, things are going to decline. And being able to accept that and be happy in that moment is, is what is, I think really ultimately such a great lesson. Just like you said. Yep,
21:40 absolutely. And one thing about ping, and I should say the main thing about being is that I’m going to have Thanksgiving dinner with her next week. I’m really excited in a nursing home now, so I get to see her and her daughter. So I’m really thrilled about this. But uh, you know, Ping just rolled with whatever came at her. She was so, so good at that. And she does recognize like she was very philosophical. She said, when you’re old, you have to make yourself happy, otherwise you get older, you know it’s taking charge of your situation.
22:14 Yeah, I think that was, yeah, and that was the key. It was, she took upon herself. It was her responsibility to do it, which is very refreshing. And I’m so excited. It’s how phenomenal that you get to go have a, a meal dinner with her. That will be a great, I’m sure a great reunion. Don’t know how many of the others that you’re still able to see, obviously. No, like I said, a couple have passed on, but that’s must be a very rewarding a reunion every time you see them.
22:46 Oh, it is.
22:49 So I know another one that has passed on was uh, John Sorensen. Um, and I think John’s lesson was really a tough lesson and an amazing lesson all in the same time, uh, because of just. I don’t know. I think I would love to hear you talk about him because I know those conversations seemed in the book. They seemed like the hardest ones to have, but it ultimately also, it was really helpful for you in how you were working at were how you were communicating with your mom.
23:23 John was a man who lost his partner of 60 years and every time we got together he said he wanted to die. Just missed Walter so much. He was starting to lose this vision or pretty advanced and losing his vision, his mobility he had gone out, I think voluntarily for the last time around the time I, him, he wandered, you know, we’d gone with an attendant about halfway down the block or three quarters of the way down the block and then got scared. He just felt like he couldn’t walk anymore and his and his attendant ended up having to carry him back to his apartment.
24:04 So I thought, well John must be one of the most morbid people I knew. That’s the definition of morbid, right? He said he wanted to die all the time, but he had such beautiful memories of his past and when you could get him talking about his partner Walter, you get them talking about the life he’d led or even just in that moment, everything kind of changed a little bit. And he was like, he was able to enjoy that very minute. And John loved to talk and talking would always get him in a good mood, even talking about wanting to die.
24:49 So I would say like, you know, John, you know, we’re having this conversation. You seem kind of upbeat. Do you really wish you were dead? Because, because our conversations are always begin, you know, John, how are you today? And go, Oh, not so well. And then in the course of it, he would just kind of like his spirits with just lift. And when I asked him, you know, do you really wish you were dead? They like, well no, cause we’re having this conversation. And okay I’m going to leave in a little while. Do you want it to die after I leave? And it was time. Well no, cause Walter’s niece is coming on Wednesday and then there’s the metropolitan opera broadcast on the radio on Saturday and they, but it’s soprano. I don’t want to miss that. So I realized that like what John really was enjoying himself in that moment. I’m sure that there were times when he was completely lonely in his, his home, but he was still able to enjoy that moment. He just didn’t want an uncertain future of Two, three years of decline.
26:01 So it helped me understand that like by accepting his mortality and really kind of embracing the idea that he wouldn’t live forever and hoping that he didn’t live forever, he was able to value this minute this day in ways that a lot of people don’t. Cause John, you know, John didn’t think like life will begin as soon as something else happens, which we spend a lot of our times doing. Right. I think you and I both have colds now. We think, well as soon as we get over these colds we’ll be, we’ll be feeling better and like life will go on, but no is going on. Life is what’s going on right at this very second. Let’s not think that like, you know, tomorrow maybe like that check will come in the mail or my dinner plans will come up or it’s my partner’s birthday. No, we’re having this conversation right this second. You and I may never talk again. Let’s get everything we possibly can out of this right now.
27:07 Yeah. His was the most, uh, interesting for me to read through and try to embrace. But I did get that. And the idea that being able to accept one’s own mortality and understand it and appreciate the end of your life coming, being able to get into the daily moments then makes, you know, except every moment that you’re offered it of value at being value.
27:35 You know, I, I did get to spend time with John at the very end of his life. He was in a nursing home, very, very end. He never wanted to be pushed out of his apartment cause his partner Walter was there in spirit. Right. You know, giving that up. And also because he didn’t see, he always feared having to be in, in a strange environment, which makes sense as well. But when he was, when knew he was dying, he was in a lot of pain. He was so kind and so appreciative and so grateful to anyone who came to see him. And I was with him when, when physical therapists came by and the physical therapist had him move a little bit cause I needed, you know, they weren’t, he wasn’t in, in palliative care. He was really, that was the idea that he would someday get out of there and it was painful to John to move around cause his neck bothered him so much. When he got through it, the physical therapist says, I’ll be back again tomorrow. And John says, I look forward to it already. And it was so, you know, it’s so moving because there was just this appreciation for anyone who came into his life. I remember a nurse came by and she did something for him and he did something, he says, I’m dying, but you’re beautiful eyelashes.
28:59 You know, and he could, one could think that one of those things is true or the other thing is true, like accepting we’re dying or we appreciate the eyelash of the nurse. But he was able to come on the both..
29:12 Which is so awesome. You reflected on some of that science of those mixed emotions that, uh, elders often have in terms of being able to both be sad or practical and then also joyful in the same time, which is a trait that a lot of us younger people aren’t quite as readily able to do.
29:33 It’s harder when you’re younger when stuff isn’t working out exactly as you thought it was going to, you know, we’re mad we can get angry at that. We feel, wait a second, this was supposed to be this way and how come it’s this way? And I think as we get older, and you know, I’m sort of in between where I was in the past and then at the, the people that are spend time with it. We started to see that the value of these experiences where we have mixed emotions, where things didn’t work out at exactly as we did. But isn’t it amazing how that they worked out at all and it’s such a great favor to us if we could figure out how to do that and start thinking that way a little bit earlier.
30:20 Yeah. So one of the ones, I think Angela said that she read that she will, she read the book both and listen to it, some of it in audio as well. And so I didn’t get a chance to listen to it in audio, but I would’ve loved to hear how the author interpreted Helen because um, because from the get go, uh, Helen was, uh, quite a character to me in this, in, in your story. And uh, so, was she like that in life as well?
30:49 I have to say one thing for the audio version because I don’t deliver the audio, but the actor, the actor who did it is really great. And then you get to hear the voices of some of the people, the ones who were still alive when we did it. And so I really appreciate the job they did with that.
31:06 Helen Moses, Helen Moses was such a character and she was very theatrical. She was, she had found the second love of her life in a nursing home, like a man down the hall, Howie Zeimer and Helen, they were, they were just like the best like old vaudeville routines, Howie was, was much younger than she was. But he had a brain injury that made them a lot slower than she was. So he was in a nursing home at a pretty young age. And so Helen was the older one, but she was the sharper one and that made for this really interesting conversations. I remember one day I was with them and, and Howie said, you’re the one woman in my lifetime. I mean it, well it said, I can’t hear you but it better be good, with perfect timing, it couldn’t have been better. And that’s just who they were. They had this like, it’s ongoing, you know, straight man and comic person.
32:16 Helen was the one driving that and she also did so much for Howie. Like she, she really made how his life, Howie was, was not a very sociable person and her kids didn’t really like Howie, because of this, it felt like Howie used up a lot of her energy that she wasn’t able, you know, he wasn’t really able to return it. And I spent, you know, I didn’t get it. I’d like what I was like the kids, I was like, well what’s Helen getting out of this? And what I realized over the course of the years that, what’s she got out of it? Was it Howie he needed her, you know, so much of what we experience as we get older is that we’re the ones who are needed. I mean, um, I mean we need other people, sorry.
33:13 And in Helen’s case, she needed Howie and it’s like, okay, when she was younger, she was needed by her husband and her kids and her job. And she gets to the nursing home, but she’s not really needed anymore. But Howie needed her. She said one day she said, I said, I take care of him cause he’s an only child. And he had nobody. And then when his mother and father died, he really had nobody except me. I try to be everything to him. I think that I am. That was so amazing. 94 wanting to be everything to another human being and feeling like you got there. Like she couldn’t do so many of the things she’d done throughout her life, but she could be everything to Howie Zeimer. Wow. Okay. What’s the life worth living that’s a life worth living.
34:05 Yeah. And I think for, for her, what I think she did really well was balance, both her daughter and Howie, who didn’t get on with each other, but she worked it that she could keep both of them happy and she was happy and she, you know, she had so many, so many things that she could have picked either one, but she decided that it was important for her to have both and her life. And she, she figured out she, she worked a way. Worked out a way to, to keep them both really happy, which, which was amazing.
34:51 Yeah. I don’t know how quite how she did it. You know, Helen and how [inaudible] from the moment I met them, said they wanted to get married, her daughter was dead set against us, you know, she was like, if you marry him, then I’m out. Yeah. And so, you know, this was this conflict where Helen was being pressed to choose one or the other and I think if you were, Helen said, if she were younger, she would’ve said, nobody tells me what to do. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to marry Howie. But it would have caused it, you know, tremendous tension with their daughter. And when Helen was said she needed her daughter in the same way she needed Howie. So she kind of just avoided making that decision to said, you know, Howie and I will still talk about how we wanted to get married.
35:51 We don’t have to actually do it. And then I’m still getting everything I need from Howie, which is, I’m able to be useful to him and he adores me and I’m still able to get everything I need from my daughter, which is, you know, I still get to be a big part of her life and advise her on things and she’ll, you know, do so much for my care, you know. And so she got both of those things without having to say, I want one or the other. And it was very, very tricky. And I said, wow, Helen, you’re really smart. How did you figure this out? She goes, no one ever called me that
36:33 you do. Like I said, never heard her before, but I think that that’s how I’ve, that’s how I imagined her voice for sure. So Ruth Willig, Ruth was an interesting elder as well for me. I think you said about her, she was the most assertively independent, but was also the one who had the most emotional support from her family. Yeah. So you wonder kind of, is it the, is it the independence or is it the interdependence that creates the independence, you know?
37:03 Well, I want to shout out happy birthday to Ruth who turns a 96 on 1111
37:08 Oh, Hey, that’s my birthday. Go Ruth
37:15 Ellen’s birthday was 10 10 Ruth’s 1111 so, uh, okay. Ruth, hated, the thing that bother her about getting older was that she started to need people to do things for her. He’s done everything for herself. She nursed her husband when his health failed and she had really been the caregiver for a sister who had Alzheimer’s and passed as well. And she hated the idea that she would need help from other people. It was gradually having to accept that. And I think what was happening was that Ruth was accepting the idea of interdependence, which is this thing that we don’t really, I believe in like we grow up thinking we have to be independent. That’s what it means to be an adult in life and stand on your own two feet, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, don’t rely on other people and it doesn’t work at the beginning of life and it doesn’t really work so much at the end of life and maybe it’s not the best thing in the middle. Maybe there’s more, uh, to be game by cooperation and reciprocity. Then there is by independence.
38:42 So, you know, by hook or by crook, Ruth was being forced into this situation of interdependence. It’s something that I think we can all learn from. It doesn’t, doesn’t mean it comes easy. Okay. We’d love the idea that we’re not limited, but we are limited. And if we can accept help from other people, we can, Hey, appreciate it more. But we can also, and it’d be grateful for the things that we do for other people more because we understand that that’s, you know, enabling them and their interdependence.
39:21 Right. Well, and I think she was starting to realize that her children were benefiting by being able to reciprocate care for her, that they had received from her for so long. And I think that is a part of that whole interdependence. And we call it in our daily habit number three is share. And it’s all about that, uh, connection, you know, and all that.
39:50 And what Ruth did in her case was she grew into a new role. As she got older and she became the last person who had her generation. It was all live, and she grew into this role of family matriarch, the only one who could keep all the branches of the family together. So she was to do something for them that nobody else could do. And it didn’t matter so much that she couldn’t do some of the things she used to do. She couldn’t cook for everybody for the Jewish holidays, but her daughter says, what does she do for us? She gives us love. It’s what she always did. Nope. So she can’t cook for us anymore. That was never the important thing. Anyway, the cooking was always, you know, an extension of her love and the love is still there. .
40:36 So the last elder, uh, is Jonas Mekas and, uh, Jonas I know just passed away in January, but wow. He was quite an example and I’m sure kind of seemed kind of like a contrast to the rest of the elders, at least in terms of his energy level.
40:59 Yes. And definitely quite slowed that down because he had the premier of a new movie on Friday, two days. There was a film that he had made to accompany a performance, the Verdi’s Requiem. Wow. So it will be running in New York for the next couple of weeks. Jonas was amazing. Jonas was the oldest of the folks. He, when he died in January, he was 96 yes. His birthday was also easy to remember because it was Christmas Eve. Jonas had, I’ve had I think a rougher childhood than anybody except for perhaps Fred who grew up poor and black in the South. So Jonas had been a teenager in Lithuania when the Soviets invaded and turned the life upside down. And then the next year the Nazis came in after them and Jonas and his brother ended up in a series of Nazi slave labor camps. So, and you asked, you know, Jonas through all that, describe herself as a happy man.
42:10 His last major, major film was called okay. Outtakes from the life of the happy man. Yeah. So I asked him like having seen evil that people were capable of. The Holocaust, you know, the totalitarian nature of Stalin as Soviet union, you know, how can you be happy really? And Jonas just said, it’s normal, it’s not normal not to sing, not to dance, not to cultivate poetry and those things. You know, I am a very, very normal person and I’m happy. Happiness is a normal state. So, you know, I think those words, happiness is a normal state are so important. That’s a, like, it’s all these things that we do and all these things that we obsess about and worry about that, that make life so much more difficult. This baseline that we’re given. Is, you know how we as human beings define the state of happiness?
43:14 A lot of his wisdom and his quotes were so in tune with what we talk about all the time. And, and the bottom line that we try to share with people is that you are in control always every moment, every day, every month, every year. You choose the thoughts that you have, define the feelings that you have, the ultimately the actions that you take and the results that you get. And those thoughts can be, Oh, this is horrible. Oh, there’s evil. Oh, it’s terrible. Or they could be, Hey, there’s a song on that. I really enjoy it. I think I’m going to dance. You know, there’s, it’s your, it’s up to you and, and I don’t, I, I know that in the book you talked about a little bit about grappling with that yourself, about kind of feeling like there’s, I think there’s something about the struggle, right? That we feel like we’re supposed to challenge ourselves and we’re supposed to do all this and that we’re growing as people by Taking on you challenges and, and stretching ourselves, but at the same time, is it, does that make somebody who’s, who’s choosing
44:32 to be happy? And that’s normal, you know, are they, is it ignorance is bliss or are they just, you know, as w which part is who’s right and who’s wrong? And that I think is ultimately that, I know for me it’s been like a real epiphany. Like I’m no more right in my challenge, in my grit and my determination than somebody who chooses to dance.
44:55 Well, I think we can have both of those things. We don’t just have one or the other. We can still, you know, really appreciate exactly everything we have right now. Just being able to take a deep breath. Just being able to savor those things, remembering to tell your loved ones that you love them. You don’t really like remembering to do all those things. We can still do all those and wanna make the world a better place. You know, we can still have both of those things. We can still want to improve our lives, but maybe we don’t need to feel like our lives aren’t meaningful until we improve them. Our lives aren’t meaningful until we fix this thing until we have this, until we have that. Because I think that that’s just the recipe for frustration.
45:46 for sure. Yeah. One of the sentences that I loved that I think you said, 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.
46:05 Oh yeah. That comes from, uh, uh, a reading that I saw Jonas do. And he was 92 at the time and when he was on stage, and he says this in the club because it’s the, uh, I think it’s the novella he was reading was called Requiem for a manual typewriter. And it was a book about nothing. This is, he wrote it a couple of decades before the Seinfeld show was a show about nothing, but it says it, it says this. Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing life is? And I wondered like how do you get there? How do we just stop all these things we want and appreciate this second, this minute, this hour that we’re in right now? Oh, the things that went into making that possible. How, um, just be amazed by that. Still want everything to be better. Jonas I think wanted everything to be better, but if we can shut all that stuff down for just a minute and stop and think that, Oh boy, that just changes so much.
47:15 Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So did the book change you for the better?
47:22 Oh yeah. I mean, I’m in the newspaper reporter, we’re grumps. We set out to look at problems. You know, we’re like heat seeking missiles. There’s a problem. We seek it out. That’s what journalists do. And I’m still able to do that. But does this stop and appreciate what we have and to understand that there’s things we can do to change the way we feel. Right. I mentioned Helen being useful to other people those days when just feeling crappy cause we all had them. I’m sure Jonas has them to just stop and think, why don’t I call somebody in, say, how you doing? How are you feeling? Is everything okay with you? You know, do something for somebody else. Get out of our mindset. I always, you know, people say, well, well, this person I know is just miserable. What can I do to change them?
48:24 You know, I say like, Hey, don’t think you can change people, but say I’m going to go volunteer at a soup kitchen the other day. It’s going to be boring. Would you accompany me just to keep company? I am going to do this. You know, would you just join me in it just for my benefit? Do you know how to and and if it’s us who’s feeling miserable, just think Hmm, how can I make myself useful to another person? How can I be thankful for the things that I have? You know, how can I thank all the people that I, that have done things for me over the years, how much I appreciate them. No, those are the, those are the tools that get us going. It’s not adding that corner office or getting the beach condo. Getting that six pack abs. You know, it’s, it’s not those things that we obsessed about.
49:23 Yeah. You said, and I’m going to have this be, I, uh, the last word on the book and then I want to make sure that we share with, uh, with our listeners how they can connect with you. Uh, you said the good things in life, happiness, purpose, contentment, companionship, beauty and love have been there all along. We don’t need to earn them. Good food, friends, art, warmth worth. These are things we already have. We just need to choose them as our lives. I think that’s a, a wise way to end. Happiness is a choice you make. John, where can they find you? I know, I think Twitter is your, your preferred social media.
50:07 I’m more on Facebook than I am. I’m just John Leland and Facebook and I am at John Leland on Twitter and I’m reachable there, but I’m not on it that much. I would say that like one secret to happiness is not spent a lot of time on social media. One secret to unhappiness is to spend a of time on social media.
50:28 Yeah. Uh, yeah. And I will link your um, website, which I know has contact information as well as that link to the book. So
50:35 it does, and I love to hear from people just to tell me like, what’s your secret because people, it’s, it’s such a, such a great gift that I’ve been given in this that people will share their own experiences. This is what I have. It’s a little bit different from yours. It’s the same as yours. It’s completely different. I think you’re full of it. I loved here from all.
50:55 Well we appreciate that. We appreciate you taking the time. Appreciate you putting up with my voice as is. And we just again, a great conversation and I think people are really going to enjoy learning more about happiness is a choice you make.
51:11 Yeah. Well thanks for having me and it’s, I don’t know what you sound like otherwise. I’ll say you sound fantastic. Thanks.
51:18 And do listen to another episode. You’ll hear me going a little bit better form. Thanks John. Appreciate it.
51:26 Thanks for listening to the live happier, longer podcast. Now it’s time to move, learn, share, give, and let go. Five daily habits to make the rest of your life the best of your life. See you next week.
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