Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Nonfiction Review: Happiness Is a Choice You Make

At the beginning of Nonfiction November, I waded through my large collection of downloaded audio books to mark the ones that were nonfiction. One had particularly caught my eye: Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland. Based on extensive interviews with people age 85 and up, this book captivated and inspired me.

As the subtitle implies, the author spent a full year interviewing six New Yorkers who were all over 85 years old. In focusing in on these six people, he was able to get to know them intimately - the stories of their past lives, as well as their lives now. They are a diverse group, but Leland extracted life lessons from his talks with each of them. There is Fred, an elderly black man, still managing (barely) to live on his own in his 3-story walk-up, who is full of life and likes to dress sharp. Ping is an 89-year old woman who had immigrated from Hong Kong 30 years ago and still enjoys playing Mah Jongg but thinks old people complain too much. Ninety-year old John feels he lived a good life and, despite losing his sight, still finds joy in music and friends, but he lost his lifelong partner, Walter, and is now ready to die. Helen, also 90, lives in a Hebrew nursing home but has found a second love in Howie, a fellow resident. Ruth, 90, is fiercely independent, in spite of increasing disability, and loves her daughter but prefers to do things on her own, rather than accept her help. Jonas, a Lithuanian refugee and the oldest of the bunch at 92, was also the most active, still performing poetry and music in the East Village and continuing his career in film. Finally, the author adds himself to the story, relating his own mother's challenges and his emotional struggles to adjust his relationship with her.

I was riveted by every moment of this audio book, read by the author. In Part 1, he introduces "the elders" and summarizes some of their hardships and joys, interspersed with statistics, studies, and facts about aging. Part 2 provides an up-close chapter with each of the elders, focusing in on their lives and what Leland learned from each of them during his year. I found I could relate to much of the book, both because of helping to care for my 93-year old father-in-law (who, like John, often says he is ready to die) and because of my own life with chronic illness. So many of the lessons learned from the elderly also seemed perfect for those living with chronic illness, with its physical challenges and built-in restrictions, that I often paused the audio to grab my Quote Journal and add another passage that I wanted to remember, like this one:
"Here was a lesson on the myth of control. If you believed you were in control of your life, steering it in a direction of your choosing, then old age was an affront because it was a destination you didn't choose. But if you think of life instead as an improvisation in response to the stream of events coming at you - that is, a response to the world as it is - then old age is another chapter in a long-running story."
Chronic illness (and, apparently, old age) is nothing if not giving up control. This helps me better relate to some of my father-in-law's frustrations. I found the entire book interesting, engaging, and inspiring. Leland's profiles of the six elders are completely honest and authentic, bringing the reader/listener into each of their worlds, which - let's face it - will some day be our worlds, too.

256 pages, Sarah Crichton Books
Macmillan Audio

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample from the beginning of the book here.

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  1. I haven't heard of this book. When was it published. I am dealing with aging parents and a father who is very unwell. It seems like he had ceded the rest of his life over to Mom which makes him seem so pitiful. Aging is definitely not for wimps.

    1. It just came out in January, Anne. I know you are in a similar situation to us - I think you would really like this book. It's uplifting but also very real and eye-opening.

  2. This sounds like it has the potential to affect the reader the way "Being Mortal" did, getting us to think about issues we'd rather not (illness and aging) in a way that is important.

    1. Yes, exactly, Helen. It's even more interesting because he chronicles his own changes over that year with respect to his own mother, too.

      We just chose Being Mortal for our January book group pick!