Lessons on Happiness from Our Elders

In the 2006 movie, The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith, the main character is a struggling single father whose pursuit of happiness is intertwined with his pursuit of money and success.  The story highlights how the feeling of happiness that people seek in life is often elusive and unfulfilling.

John Leland, author of Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old approached the idea of happiness from a different angle.  He spent a year with six elders and gained wisdom and insight that only eight or nine decades of living can unveil.   His book encourages readers to think deeply about the question: “Is happiness something we pursue and catch, or is it something we find within and learn to hold onto?”

I found the book highly insightful and want to share several of the lessons the author and I learned from these elders.

Helen, Age 91:  “Fulfillment need not be what’s just around the corner.  In the end, wisdom lies in finding it in the imperfect now.”

Helen has two people she loves and who loves her.  Her daughter, Zoe and her beloved Howie. Howie and Ruth met in the retirement home they both moved into.  Helen often talk about marrying Howie but knew that Zoe will not approve. Instead of choosing one over the other and causing conflict, she creates circumstances enabling both to love and give fully.  Helen does not need a new start, she wants the special attention and heightened sense of engage that comes with the notion of marriage.

Helen showed us how to live with unresolved conflict and hang on to those that mean the most to us.  Instead of thinking that we must always overcome the impediments to our happiness, we can choose to embrace the life we have today.  Leland says it well: “Impediments are the circumstance in which we find happiness.”


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Ruth, Age 91: “Interdependency is great for everyone.”

Ruth is fiercely independent.  She refuses to use her walker and insists on managing her own finances.   At the same time, she has a supportive family willing and able to help. She, like many elders, found receiving care to be much harder than giving it.  She mourns each small loss and resists help. Leland explained that “the person receiving help accumulates a debt to the other and must bear the weight of feeling beholden day in and day out.  There are few means that through which a person can payback a caregiver.”

Ruth, however, found her way of giving by becoming the last matriarch of the family.  She is the keeper of all family stories and the glue that holds her extended family together.  Instead of enduring a one-sided care-receiving relationship, Ruth and her family found ways to create a network of relationships where everyone is contributing what they can and receiving what they need.

Jonas, Age 92: “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing, life is?”

Jonas doesn’t consider himself a particularly introspective person. Yet he lives with a sense of purpose and drive that draws admiration from those around him.  His passion for the arts propels him to take on new projects, interact with many in the New York’s underground art world and keep moving forward. Leland writes: “If you can bottle the life force that is Jonas, you can spare the world of a whole lot of misery.”

Jonas’ optimistic outlook on life and active lifestyle make him appear younger than most elders his age.  Scientific studies by Becca R. Levy and her colleagues show that people with positive views of old age had lower blood pressure, less stress, better physical balance, and were more likely to develop healthy habits and get regular medical care.  They also lived seven and a half years longer on average.

Jonas inspires us with one simple question: “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing, life is?”


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“Happyness” in Retirement

In addition to being about learning from our elders, “Happiness Is a Choice” reflects on aging in general. Leland writes about what the elderly think about as they look back on life, and the questions one asks oneself when facing death. “How did my life matter?” “What can I look back upon with pride?” “What did I mean to others?” It’s interesting to note that in Leland’s conversations over the year, none of the six elders really talked about money or success.

My Biggest Takeaways

Next time I’m sitting with my grandparents or an elderly neighbor, I plan to take my time and just listen.  The wisdom they have accumulated over a lifetime is more valuable than any textbook I can pick up.

Elders remind us that time is our most valuable asset.  It is both limited and un-replenishable. We should use it wisely to discover and live out our passions and to find joy within the “imperfect now”.   By doing so, we might just find the best anti-aging serum there is.

About Monica Ma

Monica Ma, CFP®, CFA® is an advisor and the chair of the Investment Committee at Blankinship & Foster LLC. She helps clients build sound investment portfolios and develop strategic plans to reach their goals. Since Monica is passionate about sharing her knowledge with women and retirees, she co-leads the firm's Wise Women and Living Wisely Educational Series. Monica is a member of the International Community Foundation's Investment and Finance Committee. She has been living in San Diego since 2008 and enjoys travelling and cooking with her family.

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