By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director
We all want to be happy. We pop our heads up now and then to measure how happy we are. We buy things that will “make” us happy. We devote quite a bit of time and emotional energy searching for this seemingly allusive state. Don’t we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? So when we don’t feel happy, something must be wrong with us or our lives, right?
As a reporter for The New York Times, John Leland decided to write about the experiences of the oldest old, which must certainly be a sad tale about the downward spiral of old age, illness and death. This can often be our perspective as well. But the stories became his book, Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. In them, John talks about how he went looking for depression and loss, and found people focused on happiness instead. Could this be us, too?
John recently spoke to a large group of caregivers at our annual Caregiver Summit. He wears a shirt with the names of the people he interviewed who are all age 85 and over. Each person made an impression on him with their resilience and positive outlook despite old age, illness, and yes, even death.
Ping Wong had worked physically demanding jobs her entire life – standing on her feet for years. As an older woman who was now physically worn out without much income, she qualified for some home care services – an aide to cook some meals and clean. She was astounded at her good fortune that she was now the care recipient!
The stories John collected each feature someone who can’t help but be happy despite their circumstances. When he realizes that they are happy, not because they are lucky or everything is going their way, but because they choose to be happy, he decides he would like to be more like them. I think this was my biggest take away – how he had internalized the notion that happiness is something we all really can choose. And why not? This type of reframing is exactly what we teach in our Stress-Busting program for caregivers. We can’t change other people or our circumstances, but we can change how we react.
We all want to be happy. What if we counted our blessings every day: The love we feel toward people in our lives, the change of the seasons, soft sheets on the bed, the companionship of a cat or dog. Rather than spending time wondering how to be happy, what if we choose to let go of the worry for things that we can’t really control anyway? What if we made it a goal to find a memory that makes us smile at least once a day? We might even write it down, so it’s easy to find again.
Choosing to be happy isn’t really a new idea. But if it’s us doing the choosing, and it’s our lives that are changing – because we want to feel better and let go of the anxiety and anger, then it’s new to us. I could see the John was serious about reacting differently and living his life differently. What if we choose happiness too?
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.