Review: Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old by John Leland

Happiness Is A Choice You Make is a documentation of a middle-aged man's experiences among six elderly acquaintances about what makes people happy and fulfilled.

If you love the spiritual, self-help, or personal development genre, then this is right up your alley.

A word of warning, though - this is not a book with rah-rah, you-can-do-it, seven-steps-to-greatness ideas. A large chunk of it is full of discussions about diseases, aching bodes, amputated appendages, and death. Yet it is a book brimming with laughter and hope. It is difficult to put into words, but if I would summarise it with fewer words, then this is it - RAW AND REAL. It is for people who love "raw and real".

In an individualistic western culture where elderly advice is not sought often and mostly discarded when it is, I was curious to see a book that wants to engage with a community of the elderly.  The demographic it engages is known for its pragmatism and this shows throughout the book. The six elders whose lives are portrayed here do not have anything to sell us and they are not hoping to be celebrities of some kind - they are old, living their lives the way they know how (with all their past mistakes, regrets...) and are in some way preparing for death. In spite of this, they seem to tell us unexpected things about what happiness means to them and how to bask in it. I had a great time with this book and cannot recommend it enough.

Nothing, really.

"Since my own marriage had just ended, I asked all the elders the secret to a long relationship. Their answers, invariably, seemed too simple. 'If you’re going to be together, you better have an awful lot in common,' John said. 'And you have to learn that you don’t always agree. We did most of the time. But you don’t make it an issue. If you don’t agree on something, you don’t agree. I was brought up in a household where my father was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and my mother was basically a Republican.'

"This struck me as too little to learn from sixty years together. Everyone knows that they should try to get along. But over the year, the wisdom in John’s remark gradually sunk in. I thought about the times I’d gotten angry that my wife could be so repeatedly wrong about something, despite my efforts to correct her. How could she want to go to Cape Cod on vacation, when she didn’t swim and didn’t like the sun? And what about those times she didn’t want to have sex, just because she was freaking out about work? We argued about the same things year after year, even month after month, rather than just accept the other’s views as valid. Instead we each expected the other to change, and got mad when it didn’t happen.

"John’s insight, then, was not so simple. There’s nothing easy about accepting things that you don’t believe."


Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland hits stores in January 2018, available in all major online book stores.

Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for review copy.

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