I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Being old and being happy

Clouds, sky, mountains
I took this picture last Thursday and would have used it in my other blog, except that it was almost ruined by my thumb covering much of what I tried to capture. You can see the remnants of it after a severe crop in the upper right-hand corner. Sigh. When will I ever learn?

It was a wonderful hike, which I wrote about on my other blog, here. We didn't make it to our destination because of too much snow, but it was a beautiful day spent in the wilderness with good friends, so I was very happy. When we stopped for lunch, I had a moment of well-being that filled my heart and soul with joy, and that moment is with me still today, three days later.

I was a little down in the dumps before our hike, I think because of all the memories I stirred up in last week's post. My missing children, all that I have lost, people and things I don't forget but also don't dwell on either. Usually I rejoice at stories about my friends' grandchildren and listen with affection about their exploits and accomplishments. Recently, though, I felt myself feeling sorry that I will never know that joy personally.

What has also helped me this week is a new book I picked up at the library. It was one of several that I'd put a hold on, and it's very popular. More than twenty people are still waiting for it, so probably today I'll finish it and send it back to the library. It's a book by a journalist, John Leland, who interviewed six people who are in the category of being "oldest of the old," eighty-five and up, and followed them for over a year. He wrote a book about it, which has become a best seller. Happiness Is a Choice You Make is available both in hardback and electronically.

Even though during the year that he wrote the book, two of the six died, he found that in general these oldsters were still enjoying life and in some cases, looking forward to the final chapter of their lives being written. Not one of them feared death. On page 42 of the book, he quotes one of the women, Ping, and it resonated with me: "When you're young, the future is so far away, and you don't know what will happen to you and the world. So when you're young, you have more worries than the elderly. But I don't worry now."

I have ten more years before I will join this group in age, if I make it that long, and I do look forward to not worrying about the state of the world. Or wondering whether I'll contract some dread disease and die a slow and lingering death. But even now, I don't spend lots of time worrying about these things, because there's really not much I can do about either one. And I'm a good one for worrying. The book gave me hope that I'll outgrow that pesky mental activity.

There are many tips that Leland has learned from his research and friendship with these people. For one thing, he realized that the final phase of life is not without some wonderful compensations, like learning to truly live in the moment and appreciate small joys. All of them lived simply and as they lost mobility, found pleasure in the tiniest accomplishments. They didn't dwell on what they had lost (mostly), but rejoiced in what they still had. None of them felt helpless in their lives, but found ways to work around their limitations.

One researcher, Laura Carstensen, who wanted to determine why some people are better than others at aging, discovered something she calls the "positivity effect." For more than a decade, she and a team of researchers at Stanford began a study of this effect. They gave electronic pagers to 184 people between the ages of 18 and 94 and paged them five times a day for a week, asking them to write down immediately how strongly they felt each of 19 emotions. This is what they found:
The results were striking. Older people consistently reported just as many positive emotions as younger participants, but had fewer negative ones. They also had more mixed emotions, meaning that they didn't let frustration or anxiety keep them from saying they were happy. Consciously or unconsciously, they were making the choice to be happy, even when there were reasons to feel otherwise.
Although I'm only halfway through the book, I'm enjoying it very much and learning a great deal. It also explains to me why I felt sad after dredging up those old memories, and why I felt so good when filled with endorphins from exercise and laughing with friends. Sometimes I feel like I should be spending more time remembering those loved ones who had died, but then something like this book will remind me that it's counterproductive to happiness. There's a fine line between denial and accepting reality as it is, and I find myself trying to stay on the right side of that line. Mostly I succeed.

I have the usual aches and pains that accompany aging, but fortunately they don't bother me, unless they keep me from doing what I love. Old knees, creaky joints in general, and diminishing strength, are part of my daily life. But things like yoga, walking, and time spent outdoors in the wilderness continue to fill me with joy and, I think, give me hope that I can continue for a while yet, doing what I love. When I can no longer hike, I'll walk. When I cannot touch my toes, I'll touch my shins. And so on. When I've lost my ability to see clearly, I'll learn to love the shape of things.

I've got plenty of role models to cheer me on, such as Mary Oliver the poet, whose poems fill me with tremendous happiness. She's just entered the realm of the oldest old, born in 1932, and continues to write some of the most amazing poems. She's the one who wrote
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
With your one wild and precious life?
Well, I plan to continue to learn, and love, and enjoy my wild and precious life in the company of my loved ones, my dear virtual friends, and remembering those with much love who joined me in my earlier years. I hope I will continue for a while longer, but if I died today, I can truly say it's been a great ride. Until we meet again next week, dear ones, please remember to find at least one thing to smile about every day, and give thanks. Be well until then.


Marie Smith said...

Focus on what you can do sounds perfect and exercise is the best medicine. Words to live by.

Have a wonderful week Jan.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I think it was a downer of a week...sometimes that happens...and then we are back on track. I try not to worry, it is hard not to. Let go and Let God is what I try to do.
I am glad you are back to your "old" self ...you have such a good attitude. SOME older people are just full of complaints, and then they wonder why people don't want to spend time with them.
Keep on keeping on! :)

Elephant's Child said...

How true it is. I can't always alter/affect/change what happens to and around me, but I CAN alter how I respond.
Thank you for yet another thought provoking post. Have a wonderful week.

Bonnie said...

Thank you DJan. I need this right now. Have a wonderful week.

Red said...

Okay, like you, when ever I return from Saturday birding or skating or cycling, I'm high for the whole day. I like books like this that explain simple things that all of us have to go through. Like you, I've had a very good life and it could end today and I'd be satisfied for what I've had. Great post. I'll look for this book.

Arkansas Patti said...

Totally loved--" When I can no longer hike, I'll walk. When I cannot touch my toes, I'll touch my shins. And so on. When I've lost my ability to see clearly, I'll learn to love the shape of things."
That is brilliant and so comforting Djan. Thank you.

Linda Reeder said...

Like Patti, I loved those lines " when I can no longer...." I think I needed this right now. I have been struggling physically to do what I used to be easily.

Galen Pearl said...

I loved this post (I always say that because I always love your posts). I love getting older. There is no age I would go back to. I realize that is easy for me to say because I am fortunate to have good health and comfortable circumstances. But my sister, who could say the same, is so unhappy as she gets older. She seems bitter and brittle, stressed and anxious, burdened by duties that no one puts on her but herself. I love her and it pains me to see her this way.

You are a wonderful inspiration for so many reasons, and I admire you so much. You have a resilient spirit that shows us all that we can choose our attitudes about life regardless of circumstances.

Mel said...

Beautiful post, and lovely photo - I wouldn't have noticed the blur if you hadn't told me.
I am going to check out the book you are reading, it sounds very therapeutic! So are your posts, very inspiring perspective. I'm chasing endorphins with travel and hiking and music these days too, it is the best medicine after laughter. Hope you have a lovely week.

Rita said...

Wonderful post! I do so love our Sunday chats. ;)

Dee said...

Dear DJan, I, too, am reading the Leland book--as an e-book. I'm 82 now and so I'm feeling a real kinship with those he features in his book. For myself, my mom's words continue to guide me: "You find what you look for. If you look for good, you will find it. And if you look for bad, you will surely find that also." Concentrating on being grateful for the past and for what is today and being open to what is to come makes for contentment I think.

The fact that you are always so grateful for the experiences of your life and for your friends and family is one of your many inspiring charms. Peace.

Glenda Beall said...

Thanks, I needed that! Your post I mean. My happy time is the afternoon I teach writing for three hours. I forget everything but the present moment.
I have read parts of Leland's book, but will order it and read it all the way through. thanks for the advice. I, too, find that being with friends and family evokes many happy times and we laugh over the silliest things. My sister, Gay, is funny and she can always make me laugh.
Great post.

Jackie said...

You always have had and continue to have a wonderful outlook on life.
That attitude is contagious, my friend.
Sending you love,

Linda Myers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally Wessely said...

Thank you for sharing such wonderful wisdom with us.

mizztraveller said...

Beautiful photos and nice sharing . the most important in life is happiness . Live your life
YOLO you only live once . so just enjoy every moments and do what make you happy .