Joan Lunden's Happiness Plan

The journalist and author shares six ways to stay positive, motivated and active later in life.

- Posted on Mar 11, 2020

Journalist and author Joan Lunden

My views on aging changed forever on a trip to Morocco nearly 20 years ago with my three eldest daughters. Somewhere between riding camels in the Sahara and exploring the medina in Fez, we encountered a tribe of nomadic Bedouin sheepherders. We were invited to join them for mint tea and, as we entered one of their tents, were greeted warmly by an elderly tribeswoman. We talked through our translator, and I asked how old she was. The woman looked at me in confusion, then explained that Bedouins live by the changing of the seasons—no one knows their exact age. How old was she? It didn’t matter.

That experience made me realize how much we limit and define ourselves by the date on our birth certificate. How old would you be if you didn’t know your age? How old are you in your mind? Although I’m 69, I pick 45 for my age, and I’m sticking to it! In my new book, Why Did I Come Into This Room?: A Candid Conversation About Aging, I discuss the ways we can stay healthy, happy and engaged in life as we age.

For almost two decades, I was the cohost of Good Morning America. When that chapter closed, I had to focus on what to accomplish next. I was invited to go on a national speaking tour, and although public speaking always terrified me (unlike in a TV studio, I could actually see all the people in the auditoriums!), I jumped at the chance. Fear of the unknown makes us resist change, but little by little I conquered that fear. I now average more than 20 speeches a year, and I love each one. Many changes were still to come in my life. At 49, I married my husband, who was 39. Within a few years, we welcomed two sets of twins, born with the help of a surrogate. As a member of the Sandwich Generation, I was buying strollers for my young children, cars for my three teenagers and wheelchairs for my mom—all at the same time! And now I have four grandchildren to boot. But none of this would have been possible had I succumbed to the societal trap of acting my age.

Plan for happiness. One way to stay open to the possibilities for future joy: Have a bucket list or a happiness plan. Mine includes taking a photojournalism trip through the Serengeti, reading more books and enjoying health and nutrition classes. What passion projects would you like to pursue? Maybe you’ve always wanted to be of service to others. Figure it out, and put it in your plan. My mother, Gladyce, known as Glitzy Glady for both her effervescent personality and her love of anything trimmed in gold, always said, “Half the fun of anything is anticipating and planning for it.”

Aspire to inspire. When I got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, my first instinct was to hide. My inspiration to go public came from my father, a cancer surgeon. He died in a plane crash when I was just 13 years old, and this was my opportunity to carry on his legacy, to inspire and educate others through my own battle. I chronicled my journey on social media, even taking a camera in with me to chemo, and wrote a book, Had I Known, about what I learned. Now as I speak across the country, women tell me that I “took the scary out of it.” That makes it all worth it. Turning my cancer diagnosis into a way to serve others has changed my life and career for the better and given me more purpose than I ever could have expected.

Let it go. Stress can wear you down, not just physically and mentally but spiritually too. To deal with our stresses, we must first identify them. The things I worry about these days: Am I making the right decisions with my teenagers? Will my cancer come back? Have I planned wisely for my future? My biggest no-stress strategy is to know my priorities and stick to them. Balancing work and family is a challenge, so it’s important to learn that no is not a dirty word. You simply cannot be everything to everyone. Another thing that keeps my stress in check? Organization, organization, organization. I am notorious for my to-do lists and a giant calendar in our kitchen, marked with the entire family’s schedules. My family might laugh, but it keeps everyone’s stress at bay.

Pick your peak. I feel so much better after my workouts—can you say endorphins?—but getting up the motivation isn’t always easy. My main motivation comes from my incredible exercise buddies. We challenge each other and cheer each other on. At 45, I signed on for a mountaineering trip to climb the Teton Range. When our group stood on the mountain that magnificent June morning, our guide gestured at the peaks all around us. “Pick your peak,” he said, and that’s exactly what we did. We didn’t need to summit the highest peak to get to the top of one. From that day forward, I’ve used that lesson not just for exercise but whenever I’m making tough decisions. Pick your peak and go for it!

Have a caregiving plan. For nearly two decades, I was the long-distance caregiver—New York to California—for my mom, who’d begun slowing down and eventually developed dementia, and my brother, who had Type 2 diabetes. I arranged for them to move into a condo to keep each other company and had an aide help them out a few days a week. But it wasn’t until my brother’s death in 2007 that I realized my mom’s dementia, at age 88, was much worse than I’d thought. It’s easy to overlook things when you live far away from your loved one. They might put on a happy face and act fine when they’re really not.

I had done stories on aging and dementia, but when I found myself in the role of caregiver, I wasn’t prepared. My mother and I had never had that tough conversation about what life would look like as she aged, so I had to put one foot in front of the other and figure it out. A great rule to go by is the 40/70 rule: By the time you’re 40 and your parents are 70, you should talk about living arrangements, finances and other aging issues, so you are prepared when that day comes.

Practice gratitude. My cancer battle opened my eyes to just how much my family and friends loved and supported me. Now I find myself driving to work with an intense appreciation for the beauty of snow glittering on tree branches or sunlight dappling the leaves—life’s little miracles I might not have noticed before. To deepen that gratitude, I’ve embarked on a visual reconstruction of my life using family albums, keepsakes and memorabilia from my career. Revisiting memories and milestones gives us a chance to reflect on our lives, to be grateful for what has come before and help us plan for what’s next. Want to know my new mantra? Make today and tomorrow so awesome that you make yesterday jealous!

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