- [Tommy] Your grandparents, they've got a wealth of experience and all you have to do is ask them.
(upbeat music) (audience applauding) But one danger when you talk to old people is getting them to shut up.
(laughing) (upbeat music) - [Ali] I want to wish everyone a happy new year but I know for many of us, this is a time full of challenges and uncertainty.
But being happy isn't just about the situation you're in.
So as a psychologist I wanted to hear from a group of Americans who've had a little bit more time to figure it out.
Dr. Esty, it's so nice to meet you.
- Well, I'm thrilled to be here.
- Dr. Katharine Esty is a psychologist who's made some startling discoveries about older people, including herself.
- I'm 86, and that's sort of a shocking, shock even to myself.
People in their eighties, they're happier than people in their seventies, and most people in their twenties and thirties, when we think it's the prime of life.
- That is a very surprising finding to me and it goes against every message I've ever received about aging.
- They've learned some things that they could pass on to younger generations.
They have some secrets.
- [Pat] Some people say, you know, after 80, it's all downhill, that's not true.
- [Duck] Younger generations need to check us out and see where we're at and hope they get where we are.
- [Ali] So, what can people who've lived through a lot of ups and downs teach us about happiness?
- Good question.
All you have to do to be happy is change your mind.
That's what I'm learning in my eighties.
I'm Tommy Chong.
Pot icon I guess.
Half of the Cheech & Chong comedy duo.
What kind of joint is this?
Looks like a toothpick man.
The only reason I'm telling you this is because you asked.
Hey, it is a toothpick, man.
Everything you do on this planet is your learning.
That's why we start off as babies.
'Cause we have to grow into our, our, whatever, our role.
Other than that, you know I smoke a ton of pot every day.
Forget where I am at.
Forget what I'm saying.
♪ Happy days are here again ♪ It's not about how long you live, it's how well you live.
It's how, how you help others.
That's the key.
- [Lyle] I feel quite connected to my community.
I know a lot of people my age, giving to their community to enhance the quality of life for all the people.
- [Ali] Living your life with purpose and being connected to something larger than yourself is one way to increase your happiness.
- I did my first EMS call in June of 1962.
I've been following that path ever since.
- [Ali] 81 year old EMT, Lyle See still serves his community from behind the wheel of an ambulance in his rural Michigan town.
- [Lyle] Our regular shifts are 12 hours.
I drive and I do patient care.
We've seen a spike in calls dealing with COVID-19.
You get to know them, and it just enables you to wanna continue to be part of this giving community.
Right now, if you feel helpless I think you just gotta stay connective and active I think you feel better.
- [Duck] Y'all ready to work out with Ms.
- [Ali] I always tell my patients physical activity is nature's antidepressant.
Duck has been teaching fitness in Cleveland Heights, Ohio for the last 13 years.
- I don't move as fast as I used to, but once I get up and get started, I guess the energy comes from somewhere.
- [Ali] She's been live streaming her classes for seniors who are stuck at home.
- During a pandemic, it's different.
I'm here at the senior center.
I'm in a room by myself.
And stretch, stretch, stretch.
But I try to make it as much fun as I can, dance to music and stuff.
So that it seems like it's a party going on.
Thank you and you are welcome.
- [Ali] Older people just aren't as worried about social judgment the way teenagers and adults can be.
- I don't give a damn.
It doesn't really matter what other people think, it matters more what other people do.
- [Ali] 90 year old Horst Kraus owns a nudist resort in New River, Arizona.
- [Horst] People are so used to in their younger years they only take their clothes off for two reasons, either when they wanna take a shower or when they wanna have sex.
We take our clothes off even if we don't need a shower, and we certainly don't, don't need sex anymore.
Myself and my late wife.
- In our thirties and forties, we are so very much concerned about our appearance, and as we get older we find out youthful appearance is a fleeting matter.
We learn to cope with it.
I don't look as young as I used to look, but I'm just as happy.
- [Ali] When you're less concerned about what other people think, it opens you up to new ways of expressing yourself.
(audience applauding) Burlesque Hall of Famer Marinka has been in the spotlight for decades.
- [Marinka] I was an exotic dancer.
I was born in Cuba.
I came to the States, 1959.
- [Ali] But for most of her life, she's also kept a secret about herself.
- My dream was a transition from boy to girl.
I acquired that back in 1969, but I had to keep it very, very quiet.
I was living my life knowing that I have this little secret, I was afraid of it.
I really was.
- [Ali] She kept her trans identity hidden from nearly everyone but at 80, she was ready to share.
(sighs) - I can just let it out.
I started writing a book that I just published where I reveal my little secret.
I had good response.
(audience applauding) And I feel so good.
I feel so liberated, you know.
(audience applauding) [Announcer] Miss Marinka!
- [Katharine] Well, I think we all are struggling with the times we're living day to day, but I think if you've lived long enough you remember some bad times and you remember how we've come through and that things do change, that, you kinda know that nothing lasts.
- [Mutya] In my experience during World War II, when I was seven years old, Japanese brutality during the war.
And I witnessed them beheading people in front of me.
And I saw bombs coming down.
All of this made me strong and resilient.
- You know I grew up in a segregated Baltimore where you couldn't do this, you couldn't do that.
There have been certain things that have remained the same.
There have also been certain changes.
I am just waiting to see how things work out with our new vice president.
(bright upbeat music) - [Ms.
Duck] The thing you have to do and try to remember is just breathe, me myself I just do like, up, and woosa.
- [Horst] As we get older, we come to the realization that life is finite.
- [Ali] The average American lifespan is about 76 years for men and 81 years for women.
As a result people over 80, think differently about mortality.
How does your perspective towards death and mortality how does that change as you age?
- People always avoid death, but they avoid it less when they get older, 'cause it is closer and closer.
- I'm 92 years old, so I, yes, I do think about death, but not in as scary a way as when I was young.
- [Tommy] Death is just another moment in our existence.
There's no substance to spirit.
Spirit is pure spirit.
And that spirit when you die, that spirit lives.
Because it's eternal, it never dies.
It doesn't matter if I, if I died right now, it doesn't matter.
I wanna find out what it's like to ascend.
(soft music) - [Katharine] I heard people saying, thinking about COVID as time in between, like not real life.
And they kind of say, well, when this is over, I'll do this and when this is over, I'll do that.
We have to sort of say, this is my life I have to live now.
(instrumental music) - [Ali] 2020 was the hardest year of my life so far.
I hope 2021 gives us all a chance to exhale, grieve, and heal.
But none of that is certain, all we know is that time marches on.
- [Pat] Make the choice to do the best you can.
You can have things go wrong one day, but you pick yourself up, you wipe yourself off.
Things will eventually get better.
Duck] Well, I hope 2021 is better than this one.
(laughing) Keep your head up.
(laughing) And persevere.
(instrumental music) - [Woman] PBS American Portrait is a nationwide storytelling project.
A chance to be seen, heard and to give a glimpse into your own life.
Share yours at pbs.org/americanportrait.
And starting January 5th, be sure to watch PBS American Portrait a series made by you on the PBS YouTube channel PBS video app or your local PBS station.
- I had a long conversation with Timothy Leary one time.
His thing was that we've got to get off this planet, you know, it's dying and we've gotta go find another earth.
And I said, nah Tim, we're already going through this space at a speed of 1036 miles an hour.
So, it's already happening.
Think about it.