003: Choosing Happiness with John Leland
For almost 20 years, three-time author John Leland has been writing about the many different sides of retirement for The New York Times.
Right now, more people are living past the age of 85 than any other time in history – and John set out to write a year-long series about them. He wanted to tell stories of people who fell in love in nursing homes, those who never remarried after losing their spouse or partner, people who were still together in old age, living with disabilities, facing illness, and more.
John expected this to be a series about loss. What ultimately came out of this series, however, is a book entitled Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. Today, he joins the podcast from the heart of the Times newsroom to share takeaways, stories, and lessons that I found invaluable as a husband, a financial advisor, and a human being.
In this Podcast Interview, You’ll Learn:
- The concerns many families have around aging and death – and how to find happiness when facing depressing statistics.
- Why things that feel like the end of the world aren’t the end of the world – and it’s how we face them that matters.
- What makes older people so good at adjusting to circumstances – and the lessons John learned about happiness from people who faced a constant stream of challenges.
- The power and profound effects of expressing gratitude – even if you’re just writing down one thing you’re grateful for every day.
- How older people can stay creative and active – and keep their connections meaningful and valuable.
- Why we become so unhappy when we fixate on things outside of our control – and why so many people living in less than ideal circumstances are still very happy.
- What you can do as a financial advisor to keep your clients healthy, busy, and happy in their retirement – no matter what comes their way.
““We have to realize that happiness is something that’s within us and we’re able to choose it.” – John Leland
““You probably have clients who have all the money in the world and they’re miserable, and other clients who are struggling to get by and they’re really enjoying their lives. So, it’s not about those circumstances. It’s about our reaction to the circumstances.” – John Leland
Listen to the John Leland Interview
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Casey: Today we’re here with John Leland. John Leland is a journalist for the New York Times and he’s actually been at the New York Times for nearly 20 years covering a variety of different topics with a focus on retirement and really a wide range of different topics. He’s authored three different books. Most recently, John has authored Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old and it was actually a New York Times bestseller.
Casey: John, welcome to the podcast. Welcome to Retire With Purpose and you’re actually in New York at the New York Times right now. Tell us where you’re at.
John: You’re visiting me right in the heart of the New York Times newsroom. Can’t you tell by all the excitement and the clacking of the teletype machines?
Casey: I can. It’s just like old times, right? Sometimes technology doesn’t change.
John: Outside my window over there is Times Square. I really am in the thick of it but we’re a little bit of oasis of tranquility these days.
Casey: You are and I’m so excited to have you as a guest here on Retire With Purpose because the things that we help people with on a day-to-day basis is really finding happiness and retirement and I have a lot of families that I met with, I’ve met with thousands of different families over the years who have stepped in retirement and I’m seeing them end up finding their purpose and being very happy in retirement and other ones that have stepped in retirement and felt kind of lost and haven’t had a sense of purpose, a sense of happiness on a day-to-day basis. And that’s what we really want to help people with. We’re not here to just simply focus on selling investments or products or tools. I don’t think that ends up getting people where they want to be.
It’s not all about money and retirement. It’s about finding happiness. And there are some statistics that I’d like to start with, John, that I actually pulled out of Happiness Is A Choice You Make and I think those will be very enlightening. I was kind of shocked by some of these statistics. One of them being that there are more people living past 85 today than any other time throughout history. It was stated in your book that now we’re almost at 6 million individuals over the age of 85 and that’s up from just under a million in 1960 and the life expectancy for those that are currently aged 85 in 2018 when they were born was less than 60.
John: Yeah. So, we didn’t expect to have all that time. We know when we talk about these numbers I always say like imagine there suddenly being six times as many teenagers running around. I’m trying to figure them out.
Casey: You’d have to write a book about it. And that’s exactly what you did. And I think one of the things that many of the families I meet with are concerned about is they’re concerned about aging. They’re afraid of aging. They’re afraid death along the way at the same time and I think that’s in part because of this other statistic that you have listed in your book which was at age 85 and older 72% of people have at least one disability and 55% have more than one and I think with those types of statistics, really strikingly depressing statistics, how could you make a book about those 85 and up be about happiness?
John: Because if you look at the numbers and you ask people about their quality of life, not how younger people view the elder’s quality of life but you ask people 85 and up, 75 and up, 65 and up, about their quality of life and they’ll say it’s high. In fact, these people in that age group are happier than teenagers or young adults and I think it’s for a number of reasons. One is they’re more content with their lives. They’re less stressed. They’re not doing those things that are immensely scary to them and they’re less afraid of death. Another thing is that they have a short time horizon in front of them so they’re not freaking out about all the things that can happen and all the things they need to be prepared for. Instead, they can put their energies into things that are pleasing to them in the moment.
Casey: Well, I want to come back. I want to talk about that but I think we need to get everybody a little context. Could you just share with everyone what your book was really all about and why you decided to write it in the first place?
John: I’m so glad you asked that. So, I am a New York Times reporter in the metro section which means I cover the city and in 2015 I set out to write a year-long series on people aged 85 and up because they’re such a fast-growing group as we mentioned before.
Casey: Especially in New York, I understand.
John: Yeah. But also, everywhere. Really, it’s just that longevity is a fact of life now and we can look at it as a problem that needs to be fixed. We can look at it as a resource that we can tap. So, I thought like, “Well, if we really have that many people over age 85, what are their lives like? How do they live? How do they see their lives?” And I wanted to know this from the true experts meaning the people who are living it. So, I found six people who are very, very different from one another and I followed them for a year and they were gay and straight and black and white and Asian, retired civil servant, an artist who is still working at 95, a guy who never settled down, and a woman who never dated after losing her husband for 50 years, and a couple who met in the nursing home and I’m so impressed with them, they had the courage to fall in love and to commit to one another even though…
Casey: That’s a beautiful story.
John: Yet they probably couldn’t do so for very long and then one of them would watch the other one go. But I am happy to say that they are both – I met them at the beginning of 2015 and they’re still at it.
Casey: Well, and I’ve got to say in complete disclosure when I decided to pick up the book I thought this is going to be difficult to read. We’re talking about six people over the age of 85. How exciting can this really be? And I really got roped into the book and I found that there are so many great lessons that could be applied to my personal life and our marriage between my wife, Chelsea, and I that it became something that I really got. I was reading it every chance that I got. I travel with the book every chance I got. I cracked it open and dug in and really enjoyed the book. It was a bit addictive I got to say and I got to really have great conversations with my wife about some of the stories especially the couple that were married for so long and then they found their second love, and it was just so great to hear those stories and I think a lot of it was common sense as some of my friends stated. A lot of this, it just seems common sense how to find happiness. You just move on and you don’t worry about things so much. You accept them as they are and you focus on keeping the things in your life that make you happy. But I think we need to be reminded of that on a regular basis.
John: You know, it’s interesting because the experience you describe with the book is a lot like the experience I had with the people. I thought it was going to be, I was just going to be rewriting the book of Job for a full year and I was going to write about all the trials and tribulations. I thought it was going to be a series about loss, people would lose parts of their mobility and their vision and their hearing and the truth, they did but none of them lived in their losses. They all lived in the things they could still do. A lot of us think, “Gosh, if I ever lose the ability to play tennis or make love with my spouse or whatever, my life won’t be worth living anymore.” And then you’re talking to people that have given up some of that and their lives have consisted of things they could still do. They don’t define themselves by their losses or their disabilities. Only other people do that for them. And so, what I found was, also what you found is that I had so much to learn from these people and how could I be so dumb that I thought I didn’t have things to learn from 95-year-olds just because I might work my cell phone a little better than them? What kind of arrogance was that?
And how much important resource is getting squandered when we don’t turn to our elders for wisdom? Think about the entire human history. Almost every civilization when they wanted wisdom, they turned to their oldest people because they lived the longest. Yeah, they don’t multitask as well as some younger people but, guess what, multitasking makes you miserable. They’ve seen patterns more often and so they know. Think about pattern recognition, that’s one thing that the older brain does quite well still so they recognize things that look like the end of the world, they’re not the end of the world. You go on and you live and you survive that. It doesn’t make loss any more fun but when you know that you have survived loss the last 117,000 times, you’re going to survive this loss too and you’re going to go on and you’re going to have to make your life.
Casey: Yeah. Well, with that, what were some of your biggest takeaways from this journey that you had? I know you set out on and you had the feeling that it would be kind of dull, maybe a little boring and maybe a little sad along the way and all of a sudden it was maybe quite opposite from that and it brought you joy going in and visiting with these people on a regular basis. What was the biggest key takeaway that you had from these relationships that you created?
John: The biggest takeaway I think to me was whatever hardships we have or whatever losses we take, we have an active saying what role we give them on our lives. We can live in our losses but we can live for all the things that we still have and that led me to a lot of the other lessons in the book. And beyond that, I would say that I always thought I understood what gratitude was and I never really quite got it because I always thought gratitude was like that warm feeling you get when someone gives you something or does you a favor and what I understood from, really discovered from a man named Fred Jones was that gratitude was just a way of looking at the world all the time and Fred was an interesting case. When I met Fred, he was 87 years old and he was living alone in a walk-up apartment. He was up two flights of stairs and he was in the process of losing parts of two toes to gangrene. So, that looks like a very hard life and then when I would ask Fred his favorite time of the day, Fred would say, “On my way to 110.”
I didn’t really understand that. I look at Fred’s life. It was such a hard life. You know, just all the pain he was in all the time and I didn’t understand it but I realize that for Fred, gratitude was a different thing. Fred was thankful for the world all the time, for everything, and he was like the psalms of gratitude that thank God not for giving us this or that but thanking God for being God and creating the world and giving us the world and our life in it. And that’s how Fred was grateful and I figured, “Gosh, if Fred could do it, I can do it.” So, I just started to make it a point to actively give thanks to the good things in my life and I realized, once I started doing that, I realize I had lots of that and I found this change in me and I started doing some of the research on it and I found that there are these decades of research into gratitude.
And just having people write down one thing that they’re grateful for every day or every week, that’s like going on, it just has profound effects on people. They sleep better. They’re more optimistic about the future and they have this greatest sense of well-being and it was nice to see the research but I was really living it out, thanks to Fred. So, now I think I understand what gratitude is and what a powerful thing it could be and when I say thank you to somebody, it’s not just being polite. It’s really being thankful.
Casey: Yeah. Well, my wife and I, we did that same thing in our marriage. We did it here for a couple of years. We’ve kind of lost touch with it here lately but every morning we had a big chalkboard and we would write something on that chalkboard that we were thankful for in each other. And it could’ve been the silliest things but just every single day reminding yourself how much you’re thankful for that other person in your life, we’re just thankful for the day and completely change your outlook for that day and over time eventually change your outlook over your life as well and I hope that at the same time I might be doing this in my 30s.
I don’t know where you’re at but you’re doing this a little later in life when you’re trying to implement this feeling of gratitude on a day-to-day basis and I wonder often people often say, “Well, eventually we’re set in our ways and you’re not going to be able to change us at some point in our lives.” We get in to be 85, we get to be 90 years old, but you’re not going to get that person to start to make personal progress towards something like happiness where they began to write down something that they’re grateful for each and every day. Did you find that at those points in their lives, they’re 85, 90, 95, 100 years old, that some of these people are still making progress or making changes, positive changes in their lives such as this? Or were they set in their ways?
John: I think life moves very, very fast at the beginning of life and at the end of life. Those first years, one minute you can’t walk at all and then a couple of years later you’re talking and then before you know it, you’re off to college. And there’s a lot of changes at the end of life and people at the end of life are really used to adjusting to changes and I’ll tell you about a woman named Ping Wong that I met. Ping was from China and Hong Kong and she was so good at adjusting to circumstances and not getting to knock off her blocks by circumstances and Ping always said, “When you’re old, you have to make yourself happy. Otherwise, you get older.” Ping’s philosophy of life I think was just to adjust to the world as it came at her with the body she had and the resources she had and that’s how she dealt with whatever challenges she had when she was 20, knows how she dealt with the challenges at 90.
And Ping in the last year-and-a-half has had to deal with dementia and she’s had to move out of the building she lived in where she played mahjong with the same people every day and now she’s in a nursing home near her daughter. And when I first started visiting her there, I would ask her whether she could still make herself happy, and she didn’t think she could. And then one day I visited her and she made a new friend with a Vietnamese woman in the nursing home and they talked every day and well, I asked her about their conversation. She said, “Well, you know, when I was young, all we talk about was work or where we were going to go to eat. But now we talk about meaningful things,” and Ping had done exactly what I said. She adjusted to the world as it came at her with what she had. And so, Ping is one of the ones I always think about when I think, “Gosh, I can’t handle what’s coming at me.” I think about Ping and I felt like if Ping can do it, I can do it.
Casey: Well, I think for me that was one of the big takeaways. You’ve got these six people that are dealing with some of the struggles that you can hardly even imagine whether that’s loss of a loved one, loss of a spouse or a major physical ailment and yet they’re finding happiness day in and day out. Now, I don’t know if that was the case with everyone. You had some that I’m sure you met that weren’t so happy. One of our fans here of Retire With Purpose sent us over a question and I think that really relates well to that topic. And this question was from David and Dayona Shakely. They asked, “What did you find was the biggest key difference between those that you found were very happy and those that maybe struggled with happiness?”
John: That is a great question. I think it’s to live in what you can do, not what you can’t do. There was a man named John Sorensen who had lost his partner in 60 years and he was losing his eyesight and losing his use of his hands and he’d always thought that when he got old, he would read and play piano and now he couldn’t do either of those things. And he missed his partner. His partner is named Walter. He missed him so much that he kind of dwell in the loss of Walter. And so, John said every time we got together that he wanted to die so that would seem like an incredibly unhappy person if somebody wants to die.
John: But what I realized over time was that wanting to die meant that every time John listened to a favorite piece of music or every time he had a conversation with you, he treated it like it might be the last time he ever did so he wasn’t thinking about his cell phone or what he was going to eat later. He was really focused in on it. And his opera was better than my opera because he listened harder than I did. So, even though he wanted to die, he didn’t want to give up today. What he wanted to do was give up tomorrow because I would often ask John, you know John, he loved to talk and so talking would always get him in a good mood. He’d been talking about wanting to die so I asked him, “John, do you really wish you were dead now?” And he said, “Well, no because we’re having this conversation.” So, he was able to – there was the paradoxical things that wanting to die meant that he enjoyed this moment that he was in right now more than a lot of people do. You know how we’re always taught to live every day like it’s your last, kind of a cliché, and we don’t do it because we don’t know what it looks like? John really did it.
Casey: Yeah. Well, and I think that’s something that so difficult. I want to talk about that because I’ve had these conversations ever since I really even started reading your book. I started wondering. These are people that are extremely happy in their 80s and 90s and one of the things I think you talked about in the book is that they focus on what they can control. They really live in the moment. I think that story about John was one that really illustrated down a day-to-day basis. He said, “Well, what was happiness? Well, happiness is right now. Happiness is this moment that we’re living in.” And one of the things that you said you found is that they may – they don’t have – tell us again what did you say that your definition of happiness was when I think it was John that asked you what happiness was to you? Or was it Fred?
John: Fred, he was the guy who was losing the two toes and living in a walk-up apartment. And Fred says, “Happiness is what’s happening now.” Fred was a very serious churchgoer but Fred said, “It’s not the next world. It’s not the dance you going to tonight. If you’re not happy in the present moment, you’re not happy.” He said, “Some people say I get that new fur coat for the winter, get a new automobile. I’d be happy then. You don’t know what’s going to happen by the time. Right now, are you happy?” So, that’s that shorter time horizon where you’re just able to focus on what’s happening now because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Casey: Well, what was your definition of happiness going in?
John: Yeah. I think it was having a sense of what I wanted to accomplish, being comfortable in my life. I was clearly still being a middle-aged person but older. Still being able to do all the things that I can do now and be healthy and wealthy and wise and just basically being myself but older, not changing. And that’s false hope. We’re going to change. We’re going to experience loss. Loss, you’ll experience loss the way you experience the color green or the sensation of wetness. They’re just part of being human and we’re all going to go through that. And so, I go back to Ping again. Ping never thought her loss has made her special. She would never like to dwell on them and say, “Poor, poor, pitiful me.” She understood that loss is universal and so when she experienced loss, she just sort of moved along and I think all of them did that to an extent.
Casey: Well, and striving for a purpose, maybe something to be achieved in the future whether that’s building a business or helping people, volunteering a charity, building a charity, starting a charitable foundation, or growing a business, whatever that might be, or strengthening your relationship with your spouse, it’s okay to continue to strive towards those things. It’s just you need to be happy where you’re currently at or even once you achieve those things, you’re still not going to be happy. It’s not that – is that how you see it?
John: Yeah. It’s never like once I achieve all my goals, I’ll be happy or once my problems are all fixed, I’ll be happy because if you achieve those goals, hopefully, you’ll come up with other goals and if your problems are fixed, you’ll probably come up with other problems. You have to be – when I called the book Happiness Is A Choice You Make, it’s not like choosing between Crest and Colgate. It’s not an easy choice. What I mean by that is we have to make the choice. It has to be – we have to realize that happiness is something that’s within us and we’re able to choose it. And what I came to realize over the course of writing the book and talking about it is that the keyword in that sentence, Happiness Is A Choice You Make, isn’t happiness. The keyword is choice. So, it means that declaring I’m not contained by the circumstances of my life, I have a say in this, and that declaration I think is liberating and that liberation maybe is the essence of happiness. So, happiness isn’t the thing we choose but it’s the act of choosing. It’s what we do.
Casey: Well, and one of the things that I think you pointed out was that they chose, a lot of these individuals that were happy, they were choosing who they would spend their time with. They wouldn’t go out and spend time with someone because they wanted to begin to facilitate a relationship or just out of courtesy, they would spend time with someone they didn’t really enjoy or going out and they didn’t want to work out one day and say, “Well, I’m not going to work out today because I don’t want to.” They would focus on the things that really brought them happiness on a day-to-day basis and kind of let go of the rest. Is that right?
John: I think that’s right. If you’re young and you see a long-time horizon in front of you, you want to gather as much information and experience and contacts as possible because you don’t know what’s going to help you later on and not that not knowing puts a lot of anxiety and maybe a lot of fear and that search for experience and contacts means that a lot of those things are going to be unpleasant or you’re going to do things that make you unhappy. Whereas if you’re older and you see a shorter time horizon in front of you, you can just concentrate on things that are pleasing to you in the moment. We did a story in the Times a couple of years ago about older people starting the meal with dessert because they just didn’t care anymore.
John: But we talk a lot about and the social sciences talk a lot about social isolation, and social isolation really shortens people’s lives and it might be similar to smoking but I think there are two kinds of isolation and that’s why I love that you guys are about purpose. People can get isolated from other people. They don’t see people. There’s no one checking in on them to see if they’re taking their medication. And then the other isolation I think is isolation from purpose, a sense of what you do have some meaning in the world and that somebody’s affected about it.
Casey: Well, I’ve got two questions that relate to that and one is from another one of our fans, Chris Stevens. Chris says, “What’s the best way to stay socially involved as you get older and your family moves on with their own lives?”
John: Again, is that idea of purpose and I think that purpose is not something you find. Don’t go out there seeking purpose but purpose is something that you create and we have to do that all of our lives. What is it that matters to us? How do we create that? How do we develop that in our lives? And I think that’s a way to stay socially connected with people in a way that means something. Someone who is a concert violinist can spend long periods of time alone with the violin and not be socially isolated because he or she is doing the thing that makes them great and the thing that they love doing. There’s a sense of purpose to that. Somebody who doesn’t have an interest spends that same chunk of time alone and that’s social isolation. So, it’s creating something that you care about and developing it. Volunteering – I’m sorry.
Casey: Go ahead.
John: Volunteering is such a huge thing. I think two of the things that people can do at any age and they should start early, not waste when you’re older, is volunteering in some sort of creative purpose, not some sort of creative pursuit. We are using that part of you that’s generative. We’re putting this earth with too many creative potential, and we can cultivate that or we can let it rot. People can still be creative as they get much older and as they lose some of their abilities. People can be immensely creative after their eyesight goes or after their hearing goes or their mobility goes. And feeling like you have some sort of purpose and some sort of meaning to other people makes your connections more valuable.
Casey: Well, and the purpose doesn’t have to be necessarily grandiose. It doesn’t have to be something where we’re going to go out and change the world and that’s what I think found in the book when I read about each one of these individuals and take Ping for instance. What was her purpose every day? I mean, she had the ability to wake up and go down and play mahjong and enjoy her friends. That was a sense of daily purpose for her.
John: I think so but I think there’s a sense of give and take there. Ping is getting something from all her friends. She’s getting a social contact and at the same time, she’s giving them the same thing. So, she knows they mean something to her and she can sense that she means something to them as well. So, it’s kind of an interdependence that we often talk about being independent, that self-reliance, stand on your own two feet, pull yourself up by your bootstraps but we know that interdependence whatever age you are it’s a stronger thing than independence because it’s more sustainable and it brings together more resources.
Casey: It’s really about helping people and really finding someone that you can help on a daily basis is something that brings a lot of these people happiness.
John: Yeah. And letting them help you sometimes and understanding that you’re not diminished by accepting help from them which I think is easier to do if you’re also helping them.
Casey: Did you find that some struggled with that helpfulness? I know when my grandmother as she aged, she started to have some memory difficulties and it was very difficult for her to allow me to be there to really help her with anything whether it was her finances or her medications or just taking her out to eat. I can cook a meal. She wouldn’t hold on to all those things and really didn’t want to let me help.
John: Yeah. There was a woman in my book named Ruth Willig and Ruth, she’d grown up the youngest of four kids and so she’s the rebel of the family and as she got older, she was fiercely independent. She didn’t want her daughter ever to offer her an arm to lean on but Ruth was now at 91 she was the oldest and she was the matriarch of the family. She’s the one who kept all the branches together. So, Ruth knew that she was able to do things for her kids that nobody else in the entire world could do because they could never be the matriarch of the family. It was Ruth. So, it made it possible for her, as much as she hated to accept help, it made it possible for her to accept that help and for that family to be so much stronger than Ruth could be on her own.
Casey: Now, sitting in my seat, in our first visits with the families we work with, we spend the first 45 minutes to half an hour to just getting to know them and trying to find what that purpose is for them in retirement. What do you want to do in retirement? Where do you want to spend your time? And even going as far as to having them spend some time writing out what they’re going to do on an hour-to-hour basis once they no longer have that 9-to-5 to go to, how are you going to fill that time from 9-to-5 even from a social aspect or a marital aspect? How are you going to treat each hour of the day? What are you going to do to find that purpose in your very own retirement? And I’m wondering, if you were sitting in my seat after going through this experience spending a year with people that are actually far beyond most of the families we work with, initially, at least, most of the people that come in to visit with us are stepping into retirement. They’re 55 to 65 years old and they’re still maybe 20 or 30 years from being in that oldest of old as you named it in your book. So, how would you help them set that foundation so that long-term they can have that sustainable purpose and happiness?
John: Well, they’ve made the first step. They’ve retired and now you’re no longer striving to get that bigger house on the block. You’re no longer striving to get that corner office to beat out somebody to become partner, no longer looking for these things in life, and that’s a change in you and it’s a kind of growth as a human being. You have given up these goals and you’re ready to move on to the things that are maybe more spiritually fulfilling, maybe more at the core of who you are as a human being, who are you, what you want to be, who do you see yourself as now and in 20 years from now? And to think I start by saying like chances are you’re going to live to 80 or 90 but what does a good life at 80 or 90 looks like to you? What is it? Is it making partners? It’s no longer that thing. It’s probably not all the toys you can have. It’s probably time with people you care about, somebody to talk to, somebody to listen to, a sense of purpose, a sense of gratitude. If that’s what a good life at 80 or 90 looks like, how do you live toward that? Well, create your purpose now and go for it. And then you care about now, let them know you care about them. That sure beats a lot of the ways we spend our time and it sure beats just spending your time being afraid of getting old. Look at age as a growth process. We don’t stop growing at a certain point. We’re always growing.
Casey: But most of the time as we step into retirement, a lot of the families we work with will be thinking about that new RV or the vacations that they’re going to spend their time doing or buying that second home in Florida, turning themselves into snowbirds, whatever it might be, and not really working the way backwards. As you said in the book, a quote from the book from you was, “What do you want your life to be like then?” And I think what you mean there is what do you want your life to be like when you’re 85 or 90, not at 60 or 65 when you’re retiring? You said, “What do you want your life to be like then? What pleasures, rewards, what daily activities and human connections?” Now, work your way backward to see what moves will lead you there which is how great chess players play chess.
John: That’s right. It’s called a regression analysis in chess. They start with an endgame when there are only a few pieces on the board and the board is very simple. Rather than start with all the pieces on the board when there are billions and billions of possible moves, they work backward there and figure out [inaudible], how do you get there? And we can do that in all aspects of our life. I think doing it with aging helps us eliminate things that really aren’t that important to us. Is this thing really what we want to do? And are we willing to give up as much as we have to give up to get it?
Casey: And many times, it’s the relationships that we have that are most important to us that we overlook. Is that what you found?
John: Oh, yeah. It was that connection. When you’re 45, you really have to make it to that networking event in Dallas because that’s so important. When you’re 85, you really have to see your granddaughter or see that new great-grandchild you have. It’s the experience you want. One of those people is living the good life. Who is it? The one that’s flying from Dallas to that networking event where you’re going to meet people and they’re going to be – everyone’s going to try to show you how special they are and how they can look after your needs better than anybody or spending their time with somebody that you really love and you really care about?
Casey: Well, and I wonder how far we take this. How far do we take this where we say, well, at the end of my life, the relationships I have, the relationship with my wife, the relationship I have with my children and what I’ve been able to teach them along the way, the time I’ve been able to spend with them, the things that I’ll never get back that means the most to me, those ultimately are going to create the highest level of happiness for me at the end of life. But if I’m focusing all of my time on only the things that make me happy in the beginning of my life, don’t I run the risk of doing what I think the majority of Americans do? Which is they say, “Well, I don’t really want to do that so I don’t really want to make that sacrifice. I want to take that risk to be a business owner or put in those extra hours over the weekend.” And so, instead, I’m going to work the 9-to-5 for the next 40 years and that enables me to take a few weeks off and vacation every year, spend the evenings with my family. Every night I never have to sacrifice because then I have to make a sales call that night. I don’t have to make the sacrifice to pass the CPA exam or the CFP Board exam because that doesn’t really bring me happiness.
And I feel like in the long run, doesn’t that really just kind of prolong the time until we’re able to spend more and more of, a significant portion of our time on those things that we really love? It kind of cripples us for finding that? Wouldn’t it be better if we could sacrifice for five or ten years so that we could have more free time for the next 30 years? That’s been going through my head a lot since I read your book because I was really born into a family where it was all about sacrifice. My dad beat into my head that you have to make a sacrifice. When I was younger, it was about golf. If you want to be the best golfer, if you want to get that golf scholarship, you’ve got to be the one that’s playing before school. You’ve got to get on the course at 5 AM. You’ve got to hit golf balls until your hands bleed. You’ve got to do things that nobody else is willing to do rather than spending time with your families and friends.
And then when I got into my working career, it was the same thing. If you want to succeed at your age then you’re going to have to be the smartest or you’re going to have to work the hardest. And so, I made a tremendous amount of sacrifices in order for that to work that other people just weren’t willing to do because it didn’t bring them happiness. I’m so curious on what your thoughts are on this because it’s been something that’s really been bothering me deep down.
John: Well, you get back on the golf course at 5:30 in the morning and you see there are two guys out there on the course or two women. One of them is just enjoying the heck out of the day and swinging in. The balls going right or sometimes it’s not going right and the other person is just out there to improve the game, to make their hands bleed. One of those is leading a good life and one of them is not leading a good life. It’s not a question of how hard you work but how much you’re getting out of what you do. A lot of us work tremendously hard but we get rewards out of it other than the financial rewards and I’m not going to downplay the financial rewards. They matter and they keep a roof over our head and food in our bellies when we’re older but we do have the choice when we’re 85 or when we’re 35 that we can do things that we love.
If you’re not enjoying your work or just miserable like you’re just putting time in and do you have other things you could possibly do, I would say do other things. Some people don’t have that chance. Some people they’re really limited in their opportunities and we understand this for any number of reasons and they just have to put a paycheck in their pocket every week and, gosh, those people should do it and they should feel good about it because they’ve met one of their needs. They should feel good about that but a lot of us work too hard because we’re pursuing again that big house or that better car and we spend time away from our kids or the people that we really care about. I remember once, I was at Newsweek when the Columbine shooting happened. It’s a horrible thing. It happened April 20th and so we threw out everything in the magazine that we’ve gotten started and we were going to do the package on teenagers and how teenagers to be still lost in their own world that they’re able to build up these murderous rages and people aren’t aware of it.
And we get to the end of the day, we’re all there writing on a Saturday at the last minute and we looked at each other and we’re like, “We all had teenagers at home that we’re ignoring in order to write this cover story and, oh, our priorities are messed up. We shouldn’t be here doing this. We should be at home with our kids.” And so, we all made a point to take some time to, you know, but at the same time we had to do that thing so we’ve made it a point that we were all going to take time off with our kids and spend time with them to compensate for being away during this day.
Casey: I believe that, I mean, a lot of the families that I meet with, being part of the baby boomer generation are often saying, “Millennials, they only want to do what makes them happy. They’re never willing to make sacrifices,” and the reality is that sometimes you have to work at jobs you don’t like in order to ultimately get to that job that you do like. And do you agree with that?
John: I push back against criticisms on millennials for the same reason I push back against criticisms of older people. Generalizations by people’s age are ageism. So, I try – it’s really tempting. They’re out there. They’re everywhere. I think there’s probably a wisdom to this generation, in the same way, there’s a wisdom to the generation that came after them and the generation that came before them, and now it behooves us to learn from them, not just to criticize them.
Casey: Well, I appreciate that being a millennial myself. Now, I want to shift gears.
John: Well, I’m going to learn from you. Yeah.
Casey: So, I want to shift gears and go back to the book. You had a quote from the psychologist, Laura Carstensen. I’m not sure if I said that right and she wrote, “That’s the first lesson I learned about what it’s like to be old. We become what our environment encourages us to be.” So, my question to that would be, is there any advice that you could offer to someone that is in that stage when they’re 60, 65, they’re stepping into retirement, what could they do? Maybe they’re even 80 or 85 and they’re not finding happiness. How can we arrange our environment in order to encourage happiness?
John: I think it’s not so much the environment. It’s understanding that you have a say and how you deal with the things in your life that you’re the one in control. You’re the one – we all have things that happen to us and we all have our reactions to the things that happened to us and we don’t always have control over the things, over the stimuli, but we do have some influence at least over our reactions to the stimuli and that’s where I think happiness or unhappiness lie. They’re not in the stuff of life because people can be happy and incredibly miserable circumstances and miserable but in really pushy circumstances. You probably have clients who have all the money in the world and they’re miserable and other clients who were just really kind of struggling to get by and they’re really enjoying their lives. So, it’s not about those circumstances, it’s about our reaction to the circumstances.
Casey: And I find that it’s largely about gratitude in those circumstances. I can find that the families that I work with that I’ve got one in particular that they’re not wealthy by any means. They basically live off their social security income and they’ve got about $200,000, $250,000 they’ve saved but they’re the happiest people that you’ll ever meet and they’re continually always saying, “We’re so blessed to be where we’re at. We’re so thankful.” And then I’ve got families at the other end of the spectrum that are doctors that will say, they’re always complaining about something. There’s always a problem that’s going on in their life whether it’s their children or the second failing business that they started and it didn’t work out and it’s somebody else’s fault or it’s society or it’s politics. I’m going to say some of the most unhappy people that I meet are complaining about politics and things that they can’t control on a day-to-day basis and driving themselves nuts and typically their spouse.
John: I worked with a photographer once when I was in Iraq and he’s a wonderful photographer. He loved being a conflict photographer. Stepped on a mine in Afghanistan, lost both of his legs above the knees. And this first time I saw him after that was back in New York and we were at a dinner party and it was a tough time for me. I was going through marital problems. I was in the process of getting divorced. Now, I was feeling very sorry for myself. We get to this party and Joao, the photographer, is just the happiest guy in the room. He’s the one who doesn’t have any problems and it felt like, “Gosh, why am I stewing in my problems when Joao can’t do any of the things that he used to do and he’s just got new things to do and he’s in love with his wife. He’s in love with his wife and his family and he’s just found ways to be grateful that he’s still around, still able to do that.” So, it’s that kind of attitude that gets us by when we’re 40 and gets us by when we’re 80.
Casey: You know, and I wonder if that’s one of the things that you mentioned getting involved in some type of volunteer charitable outlet. That puts us in a position as maybe more fortunate individuals where you’re around less fortunate individuals or maybe struggling with maybe hunger. They’re struggling with poverty. They’re struggling with maybe a physical ailment or abuse and now you get to really appreciate where you’re at as a result of that. And that’s one of the reasons that for all the people, all the families we worked with, I found that a lot of times that they were looking for ways that they could get involved volunteering and looking for ways to get involved for the charitable outlet but they were struggling with finding that they just needed some push in order to get them there so we started establishing.
We now have some type of volunteer event for the families that work with us every one to three months and I have found that the families that go to that they always walk away much more fulfilled and it seems like they had the biggest smiles on their face as they walk out of there. Even I’ve got a couple that has been some of the most negative people that I’ve ever met time and time again and when they walk away from that event, they are significantly happier and I have seen a significant improvement in just their level of happiness that you can see on the outside of them because I think of the time they spent in those events where they saw people that were struggling with hunger and they finally realized, “Maybe I don’t have that much to complain about.”
John: My ability to put a soup ladle in a pot and pour a soup into a bowl, that doesn’t impress me that much. It doesn’t seem very valuable to me. Put me in a soup kitchen, let me get that ladle in the pot and get some soup to somebody, I’ll understand that that’s an incredible gift that I’ve been given. I have the ability to do that and it just makes me feel differently about that person. I feel a connection with that person and I also feel a connection with my own abilities. I could be grateful for my abilities in ways that I couldn’t before.
Casey: Now, you learned a lot of lessons from these six people that you, and I think it was actually probably more than six, that you met with over that timeframe over a year and it was probably a little over a year at the same time. And so, you had to go out, you had to seek these people out. You had to find the right people to learn from. Well, I’m thinking you probably had a number of people that you knew in your own personal life along the way to this point in your life that were over the age of 85. So, why did you seek out these other people? And what did you learn from the people in your own life along the way that maybe you didn’t learn from these families?
John: Well, thanks. A big influence on this book and on my stories in the New York Times was my mother. My mother’s 89. She’s in a wheelchair and she’s had a pretty hard life and she says, “If you want to know what old age is like, it stinks.” So, that’s my mother’s take and my relationship with my mother was always that I would help her with things that she needed to fix in her life. My father died in 2004. So, I’ve always tried to help her with things and it’s usually small things like she’s with her computer, things in her apartment. And so, I put us in this relationship where I was the one who fixes the problems and mom had to become the problems that need to be fixed. And I was unable to appreciate all the things that I was getting out of her because I thought it was all about what I was putting into the relationship and I was happy to do it. I love my mother but it was a one-way, maybe in a one-way relationship for the choices both of these roles.
Then I started to go out and meet these other people who are my mother’s age and I didn’t have to fix them. I didn’t have to do things for them. All I had to do was listen for them and gain an enormous amount from it. I started to realize that what kind of person am I if I’m not appreciating that same wisdom and knowledge that’s passed to me by my mother? And it changed our relationship that made my mother much less of a project and much more of a lunch date and it really improved everything
Casey: Yeah. That’s why we should be seeing all of our parents. I’ve got one question from our fans. We’ve got a question from Pat Risling. Pat asked, “Do you find it difficult for widows to date after losing a long-term partner? How do you move on from that?” and I think she means how do you move on from that type of long-term relationship where you had such a, I mean, I can’t even imagine. My wife and I are going to celebrate our seventh anniversary this weekend and I can’t imagine our 60th.
John: It’s interesting. My mother’s a widow as I mentioned and she never wanted to date after my father died because she never wanted to go through that experience of being with somebody at the end of life together. It was too painful with my father, just watching him die. I think he suffered a bit at the end. She never wanted to have to go through that again and doing at her age, she realized that she wouldn’t have too many good years before the decline. On the other hand, Helen Moses, the one I mentioned before, moved on to live in a nursing home. She was willing to do that. Well, she got out of it. She was able to be needed by her partner, Howie, her boyfriend, Howie, who she met in the nursing home and he was younger than her but he was a little bit more needy than her because he had a tremendous brain injury when he was younger. So, she’s 91 and she’s needed again and one day she said, “I try to be everything to him. I think that I am,” and that’s such a beautiful thing to be thinking to be 91 and thinking that you’re everything to somebody else and I don’t know. Whatever age you are, that’s a good life.
Casey: That story right there was my favorite from the entire book. I really spend a lot of time in there just enjoying that story and sharing it with my spouse. So, as we wrap up, I’d like to ask you some just kind of generic standard questions that we like to ask everyone that comes on the show. And the first one is, in one word, what does retirement mean to you?
Casey: Renaissance. That’s a new one. Explain that.
John: I thought it was just one word.
Casey: Well, expand on what Renaissance means to you.
John: You’re entering a new chapter. You’re not stopping something. You’re doing something new.
Casey: Yeah. Moving on. Retiring to something, not retiring from something. I think that’s what ultimately creates happiness and the families that I see time and time and again that are starting new businesses or just continuing hobbies that they have previously whether it’s an old car they’ve had sitting in the garage they’ve been wanting to work on for the last 20 years or working on a new home. I’ve got a couple that wanted to get involved in the church that always were involved but wanted to become church elders. They never really have the time to commit to it and they also wanted to buy a home, an old home and fix it up. They were retiring to something. It was a Renaissance if you will. So, I really appreciate that. And what does the word purpose mean to you as it applies to life?
John: The word purpose means feeling the things you do make a difference to somebody.
Casey: And that is something that I think most of these people had in their lives, wouldn’t you say?
John: Yes. Some people have a tremendous drive to change the world. Some people have a tremendous drive just to be able to be a loving shoulder for somebody to lean on for a minute and I think that both of those things are valid and both of those provide purpose and help to sustain us in life.
Casey: Well, I think that goes back to the relationship thing. I’ve seen it with my mom. Mom divorced and they were married for 40 years and she struggled with creating a new relationship and the other could be a lot of reasons for that but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an intimate relationship. It’s just someone to spend time with and someone to help and let help you and just enjoy creating a friendship with the very least.
John: As long as you’re not just complaining about this political party or that political party when you’re together.
Casey: Well, I can 100% agree with that and I absolutely appreciate that as well. After going through this process, meeting individuals that are over the age of 85, I’m wondering if you could revisit your 20-year-old self, what kind of advice would you offer?
John: That’s such a great question and I always ask that of the people in my book in my stories but now I’ve asked it myself that I’m on the hot seat so what I would say is enjoy this period and enjoy the next period and the one after that and the one after that.
Casey: Every moment. Enjoying every single moment that you live in. Finding happiness and even the saddest of moments or at least positivity in some of those saddest of moments.
John: And I think one thing that’s important is I would advise people to understand the difference between things that are happening and things that aren’t happening but might be happening. People I think and particularly in these last couple of years, people I know are freaking out about things that they think are going to happen but haven’t happened. And I’m talking about the political world now whether you’re on the left or the right, wherever you are, you’re looking at things, you’re looking at cable news and it tells you that something horrible, the sky is falling, and you need to make that distinction. And the person who puts this best was the filmmaker, Jonas Mekas, who’s one of the people in my book. And Jonas said, I was talking to him about this that I was worried about something and Jonas just said, “I never worry. I’ll start to worry when something happens. Why worry when it’s not happening? You deal with it. You waste time worrying and it may never happen what you think. Nothing is hopeless. I don’t even know what it means, hopeless.” And I don’t think I go a week without quoting that either to myself because I need it or to somebody else in my life because they need it.
Casey: Well, I love those words and I think that leads us into my final question which is what is something that you would like to see as absurd 25 years from now?
John: Cosmetic surgery. How about that?
Casey: I like that. I appreciate that. Now, is there anything that you’d like to leave us with? Any parting words of wisdom or anything that we didn’t touch on?
John: I want to say how much I’ve gotten out of my relationships with all these people in my life including my mother that it meant so much to me and I’m so grateful to them and because so much of my book is about the power of gratitude, I give thanks to them for giving me the opportunity to give thanks to them.
Casey: Now, where can people find you? Where should – I think there’s a website that they can visit, right?
John: I have a website and I really would like to hear from other people. Tell me about that extraordinary elder in your life or if you are that person tell me about yourself. If you’re happy, tell me why you’re happy. If you’re not happy, tell me why you’re not happy. And my website is HappinessIsAChoiceYouMake.com. It’s a lot of letters I know, but HappinessIsAChoiceYouMake.com.
Casey: Well, we’ll make sure that we get the link to the website as well as a link to pick up your book in the show notes as well as your email contact information. So, if anyone wants to email you with any questions or thoughts then we’ll make sure that they have that information. Again, that will be in the show notes and I really thank you for coming out and visiting us on the Retire With Purpose show. I think that a lot of folks that listen to this hopefully they pay close attention to each and every one of these words. Hopefully, they pick up your book and dig in and don’t say, “Well, this is probably boring,” but actually find the wisdom in the words of some of these individuals that are definitely there. There are so many great words of wisdom that can be shared, not just internalized but shared with those that you love and I hope that everyone goes out and does that. Thank you, John, and I hope we get to catch up again soon.
John: Thanks, Casey. And I really do mean what I say about believing in the wisdom of millennials and our conversation just gives me more reason to believe in them.
Casey: Thank you, John. We’ll see you next time.