(New York Times) Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person
Written by JOHN LELAND; Photographs by EDU BAYERDEC. 29, 2017
Jonas Mekas turned 95 this year and won a lifetime achievement award in Frankfurt, Germany. Ping Wong, 92, learned new rules for playing mah-jongg. Helen Moses, who turned 93, mostly gave up talk of marrying Howie Zeimer, her steady companion of the last eight years. Ruth Willig, 94, broke a bone in her foot and feared it was the beginning of the end.
Nearly three years ago, I started following the lives of six New Yorkers over the age of 85, one of the fastest-growing age groups in America. The series of articles began the way most stories about older people do, with the fears and hardships of aging: a fall in the kitchen, an aching leg that did not get better, days segueing into nights without human contact. They had lived through — and some were still challenged by — money problems, medical problems, the narrowing of life’s movements.
But as the series went along, a different story emerged. When the elders described their lives, they focused not on their declining abilities but on things that they could still do and that they found rewarding. As Ms. Wong said, “I try not to think about bad things. It’s not good for old people to complain.”
Here was another perspective on getting old. It was also a lesson for those who are not there yet.
Older people report higher levels of contentment or well-being than teenagers and young adults. The six elders put faces on this statistic. If they were not always gleeful, they were resilient and not paralyzed by the challenges that came their way. All had known loss and survived. None went to a job he did not like, coveted stuff she could not afford, brooded over a slight on the subway or lost sleep over events in the distant future. They set realistic goals. Only one said he was afraid to die.
Gerontologists call this the paradox of old age: that as people’s minds and bodies decline, instead of feeling worse about their lives, they feel better. In memory tests, they recall positive images better than negative; under functional magnetic resonance imaging, their brains respond more mildly to stressful images than the brains of younger people.
John Sorensen, who liked to talk, brought cheer to every conversation, even those about wanting to die. Helen Moses and Ping Wong knew exactly what they wanted: for Ms. Moses, it was her daughter and Mr. Zeimer; for Ms. Wong, it was mah-jongg and the camaraderie it entailed, even if the other players spoke a different dialect or followed the rules of a different home region. Mr. Jones, Ms. Willig and Mr. Mekas all spent their energy on the things they could still do that brought them satisfaction, not on what they had lost to age.
For three years, visiting them has been a lesson in living, and a rejoinder to the myth that youth is life’s glory, after which everything is downhill. Their muscles weakened, their sight grew dim, their friends and peers gradually disappeared. But each showed a matter-of-fact resilience that would shame most 25-year-olds.
“It’s like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel,” Fred Jones said one day in his apartment, a cluttered walk-up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, whose stairs he could barely climb. “The span is too long just to have a bridge, so they had to have a bridge and an underpass. So part of it you’re up here, and part of it you’re down here, and finally you get to the Eastern Shore. Good days, bad days. But over all it’s good days.”
So it went with all of them. Their message was so counterintuitive that it took a long time to sink in. But finally it did: If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.