Happiness is a Choice You Make is a thoughtful little book, philosophical and entertaining all at once. The pages encapsulate the author’s reflections on his time spent with six members of the “oldest old,” a cohort of New Yorkers over eighty-five. The stories are more endearing and charming than they are inspirational or encouraging, but it doesn’t seem like the latter was what the book was intended to be anyway. Indeed just from reading it isn’t clear what the overarching goal or theme of the book is, as the title is certainly more of an afterthought than anything that the book revolves around or ruminates on. The dust jacket says the work grew out of a project that only intended to follow the lives of a few folks who had some extra years on the rest of us, but the disparate stories are woven together in a wonderful collection. The work is written in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, with short clips of conversation or other slice-of-life descriptions interspersed among lengthy stretches of prose. These stretches are often rather reflective and generally serve to relate the different stories to one another. The table of contents might attest to a more structured approach, but as it is everything is rather woven together in a somewhat seamless fashion.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who has elderly folks in their life, or who intends to become one someday. The stories of their younger years are all quite different, as are their day-to-day lives during the year that these interviews take place. To bring the stories into perspective Leland often integrates them with accounts of his interactions with his mother, who is confronting aging herself. Some of those deliberations serve to be little more than foils of the stories that they are meant to parallel, but others do highlight meaningful insights or what could even pass as morals. It should certainly not be approached as a deep or probing study of what aging might mean in modern society, as it is much more a breezy encapsulation of the relationships the author has with the other characters in its pages.
In summary, it is a remarkably approachable and insightful book. It is well worth the few hours that it takes to peruse it, both as an enjoyable experience and for the reflections it contains. While it is certainly not the only record or portrayal of life in old age in the urban world in the twenty-first century, it does hold up well in the genre.