In the beginning of a new year, everyone has thoughts of what they want and how to achieve it. Everyone wants to be happy. But how easy is that ?
I have been following the New York Times columist John Leland in his series of interviewing “old people” during the past three years. He has intensely followed six people 85 and older. I’ve read all the articles over the years and they have had an impact on me. On December 31st, he wrote an article about the four remaining old folks and his conclusion was if you want to be happy, think like an old person.
What does that mean ? In short, it means live in the present, accept what is and have gratitude for all the good things in your life. You don’t need to be old to do that! These older people had the wisdom to get through the ups and downs of life. All have experienced illness, loss and sadness. They had the resilience to recover and feel happy again. They all report that they are happy because they are connected to other people and are not isolated. They have lived many years and realized that “stuff” is not what makes people happy. Letting go of hurt and anger, while a difficult process, ultimately helps people feel better and happier. When people grow old, they need to make peace with the issues in their lives, or else live out their lives unhappily. That becomes a choice. And when we see old people, we can easily tell which ones are happy in their lives and those who are constantly complaining and miserable. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have complaints, it is about how those complaints are handled and how central in their lives they become. No one’s life is perfect.
I was speaking with someone recently about her mother. Her mother is ninety and cannot walk. She is bitter and angry. My friend feels sad that her mother is so unhappy. We talked about her mom’s life and how she is living out her final years. What lessons can we learn from these older people ? Sometimes we want to emulate them, and sometimes, we want to be sure we don’t act the way they do, and that when we are that age, we can accept what is. We can begin that now, whatever age we are.
That’s the important message for the rest of us who are not old yet. As Leland states, the impact of his interviewing has been profound for him. He says that he has “learned to be more patient, less anxious, more capable of loving and less afraid of dealth and decline”*. If we can, before we are old, accept the present and find a way to be happy and comfortable with what is, we will be happier. This is not new information from these old folks. The Buddha has been telling us this for 2500 years and the Dalai Lama often speaks about being in the present and accpeting what is. Happiness is a state of mind which can be achieved. The road to achieving happiness, according to neuropyschologists who study the subject, is to meditate, to be grateful for what we have in our lives.
Dan Harris, the tv anchor, wrote a book called “Ten Percent Happier” which explores happiness and meditation. Its a wonderful explanation of meditation and a description of how it has changed his life and how profound he feels the impact of meditation can be on everday life. I strongly recommend it.