Interview: John Leland.
John Leland is a longtime journalist who has been at The New York Times since 2000. He's covered a wide range of topics, among them, retirement and religion.
He also writes books, and he has a new book that is just hitting the shelves: Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old.
It's based on a yearlong series he wrote for the Times. If you want to read a great article to get a sense of his project, check out his piece "When Old News Is Good News: the Effect of 6 Elderly New Yorkers on One Middle-Aged Reporter."
His book is a fascinating look at the lessons he learned about happiness from studying the lives of a group of the "oldest old" (age 85 and older). The people in this group had very different backgrounds and circumstances, but John Leland was able to divine certain lessons about how to be happier -- at any age.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?
John: The biggest revelation was how much influence older people – and by extension, all of us – have over how we process the events of our lives. I don’t mean that we have control over them. At some point, bad things will happen to all of us. We’ll lose our jobs or our vision or our parents, we’ll suffer disappointments at work or in front of the mirror. But we have a choice: we can define our lives by these setbacks, or by the opportunities that are still available to us. One of my favorite lessons in the book is from Jonas Mekas, 95, who spent his 20s in Nazi slave labor camps and then UN displaced persons camps. “I don’t leave any space for depression to come in,” he said. “I gravitate more to neutral areas or to positive activities. I’m not interested to film some dark, depressive aspects. I’m more interested in where people come together, they’re singing and dancing, more happy aspects. Why? It’s my nature. I consider that maybe unconsciously I’m thinking that’s what humanity needs more.”
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
John: The simplest: say hello to people I pass on the streets in the morning. It’s almost literally the least I can do, and it always starts the day off well. Give money to people who need it, and say thanks to anyone providing services, even if they’re just stopping me on the bike path or checking my ID to get into the building at work.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness, health, creativity, or productivity that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
John: I spent my early years not just thinking the glass was half empty, but outraged that the glass wasn’t bigger. I thought this dissatisfaction was the creative force driving my work. And this attitude got me pretty far. But it was a beast that always needed more food, and what it was feeding on was me. I’ve since learned that I’m more productive and creative, not to mention happier, when I’m working collaboratively with others rather than competing with them, trying to serve people’s needs rather than vanquishing injustice. Often that amounts to the same thing, but for different reasons and with a different orientation. It can be a great rush trying to make the bad guys lose. But it’s more rewarding – and more effective – trying to help the good guys win.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
John: Years ago I came up with three guidelines to right me when things get rocky: Spend more time with friends; spend more time in nature (loosely defined – a city park does the trick); and remember that my job is just my job, not my identity. I’ve added a few since then, the most helpful of which is not to over-react to things that haven’t happened yet. So many of the things we lose sleep over never come to pass. Or when they do, we discover we can handle them. If you can’t be happy until there’s no longer a storm brewing somewhere, you’ll never be happy. Live your life, have a picnic, and on those days when the rains actually come your way, find a dry spot and some friends to share it. You’ll be surprised by how much coleslaw you can squeeze in.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
John: Most of my life I’ve been hearing about the value of gratitude, but I never understood what that meant. Then I met Fred Jones, one of the six elders in my book. Fred was 87 at the time, and struggling to manage the stairs to his walk-up apartment. He grew up poor and black in the South, and over the course of our interviews lost two toes to gangrene. Yet Fred always found reasons to give thanks. When I asked his favorite part of the day, Fred never hesitated: “My favorite part of the day,” he said, “is waking up in the morning and saying, Thank God for another day.” That attitude floored me. I didn’t see what Fred had to be thankful for. Why was he, with all his problems, always in such a good mood, hoping for another 20 or 30 years of life?
But gradually I got it. Gratitude, for Fred, wasn’t being happy for that new toy he just got or that helping hand when he needed it. Gratitude was how he saw the world: as a place that was always doing things for him – providing warmth and light, food that nourished him, colors to delight him, sounds that soothed. Sex! It meant that he was never lonely because he was always surrounded by benign forces that were working in his favor. Roads! Bridges! Pringles! It was a revelation. Life wasn’t just a battle I had to fight on my own: it was also a bounty I was lucky to receive, hands I was lucky to have supporting me. Life itself was reason to give thanks. And once I understood this, everything became so much easier.