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drawing of life transitions

❝Life is not what it's supposed to be. It's what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.❞ -Virginia Satir

Frederich Nietzche is well known for his quote (often misattributed to Viktor Frankl), "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Many people (including myself) focus on the "why" aspect of the quote. The "hows" of life don't often get talked about, though. They are the "life" that people talk about when they say "life happens" (or it's less PG version...). Having a "why" helps with the hows, but understanding the hows of life gives us insight into how to better prepare for and cope with change.


The Canadian band Rush has a line in their song Tom Sayer, "... changes aren't permanent, but change is." Lyrically, this is a great line because "changes" sounds exactly like "change is." Lyricism aside, though, the point is that any particular change isn't permanent. It's the Buddhist concept of impermanence - everything is constantly changing and nothing lasts.

As obvious as this might seem, most of us don't live our lives with that idea in mind. We tend to think - or hope - that things will remain constant. Or, we hope that once we get everything we want, we will live happily ever after.

In other words, we live life as if there is virtually no chance of change.

drawing of wishful probability of transitions

Yet, we know that everything changes. Ironically, change is the only constant in life. Changes will thrown our way.

drawing of real probability of transitions

If you think about it, that's how it should be. Imagine a movie or book where everyone was happy all the time and nobody had any problems to solve. That would be a boring story! You wouldn't watch that movie or read that book! Or, perhaps, you play video games, but imagine a game without challenges to overcome.

Life is the same way. If everything was constant and nothing changed, life could be boring.

drawing of boring life

On the other hand, a meaningful life consists of solving interesting problems, including adapting to never-ending changes.

Life isn't about removing change from our lives. It's about getting better at handling change.

drawing of meaningful life


Change in life is so common that there's a name - transitions. Transitions are new situations we find ourselves in. There are many life transitions in different areas of our lives. We've got financial transitions, family transitions, work transitions, health transitions, and legacy transitions.

A transition isn't necessarily a bad thing. They range from good to bad (although whether something is "good" or "bad" is a subjective value judgment).

drawing of good and bad

Life transitions don't necessarily sneak up on us, either. Sometimes, we know they are coming, and other times, we can feel blindsided.

drawing of expected and unexpected

We can consider both of these together as one grid.

drawing of life transitions grid

Some life transitions are expected, and many would consider it good. Retirement is an obvious choice here. But this could also be a promotion at work, having kids, empty nesting, selling a business, graduating college, and so on.

drawing of expected and good transitions

Some transitions are good but seem to come out of nowhere. If you receive a mystery inheritance from a long-lost relative, many people would consider that good (ignoring here the fact that there may be some grief if the relative was close to you).

A surprise promotion would fit here, too, as well as an unplanned pregnancy (if that's something you would consider good - remember, good and bad are value judgments), surprising investment returns, or learning of a full-ride scholarship when you thought you were going to have to pay for college.

drawing of unexpected good transitions

There are, of course, bad transitions, but even with bad transitions, sometimes we know they are coming. For example, you may have aging relatives. Empty nesting (listed above as a "good" transition) could be considered a bad transition if your identity is tied to being a parent. Aging yourself is something you know is coming, but still feels bad when you have your first prescription or have to get glasses for the first time.

drawing of expected bad transtions

Finally, there are the doozies. These are the bad ones that come out of nowhere. Arguably, these are the toughest ones to cope with because of the unexpected, negative nature of them. If you found out your spouse wants a divorce and you didn't see it coming, that would be in this quadrant. Losing a spouse or child to cancer or accident would be here, or getting diagnosed with a life-long illness.

Transitions are important to plan for, even with the expected good ones, because most transitions have a financial tether. Transitions mean something is changing.

drawing of unexpected bad transitions

Resilience is the ability to bounce back (or grow) from stress and adversity. The ability to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being in the face of setbacks. Learn more about how resilient you are.


Resilience is the ability to bounce back and grow from adversity. When transitions happen, a person with more resilience will cope with the transition faster and with fewer negative consequences.

Coping with transitions is how we both strategically handle our new situation but also how we emotionally handle it.

drawing of resilience

Much like transitions themselves, we can think of coping strategies in terms of a grid. On one axis, we look at strategies through the lens of how much control we have. Some things are in our control and others we have no control over. Stoics call this the dichotomy of control.

drawing of control vs. no control

On the other axis are our actions. We can choose to do something or not do something.

drawing of doing vs not doing

These two axes provide us with four coping strategies.

drawing of coping grid

Doing things that are within your control is active coping. Reaching out to friends, hiring professionals, doing research, and journaling all fall into this quadrant.

drawing of active coping

Having things in your control but not doing them is called passive coping. I might be able to reach out to people, but I don't - maybe because I feel embarrassed or don't want to admit it.

drawing of passive coping

Doing things that you have no control over is called overcontrol. This is when we feel so uncomfortable with uncertainty that we do things just to say we're doing something. It gives us the illusion of control. If I see the stock market falling, for example, I might tinker with my portfolio even if that won't help (or make things worse). Other people's actions and thoughts are ourside of our control, so trying to change them is overcontrol.

drawing of overcontrol

Letting go of things over which we have no control is surrendering. We accept that what will happen is going to happen, and we focus our energy instead on things we do have control over.

drawing of surrender

Of these four, two strategies are adaptive. Active coping and surrendering are adapting.

Adaptive coping will be helpful to us and help us bounce back. Adaptive coping makes us more resilient.

drawing of adaptive coping

Passive coping and overcontrol are maladaptive coping strategies. They are unlikely to help us bounce back and may make us worse off.

drawing of maladaptive coping


You might be familiar with the "equation" F = H - E (or sometimes H = R - E)

drawing of happiness is reality minus expectations

This little equation says that how we feel is what happened minus what we thought would happen (or happiness equals reality minus expectations).

drawing of happiness equals reality minus expectations

This is an important concept. Expectations matter. If we live our lives expecting everything to stay the same (alternatively, living our lives not expecting change), then we will be surprised when the inevitable change happens.

To drive the point home with a silly example, if I expect everyone to be a "good driver" (whatever that means!), then I'll be upset when I inevitably get cut off, or see someone speeding past me, or have a slow driver in front of me. On the other hand, if I expect there to be some crazy drivers out there when they show up, I can say to myself, "There they are."

Expecting transitions is easy for the types of transitions that we know are coming. It's a little trickier to expect an unexpected transition, but it's possible.

Let me explain. I know there are going to be stock market downturns, though I don't know when, why, or how long it will last. The fact is that they will exist in the future. Similarly, I don't know what my next unexpected expense will be, when, or how much, but I know for sure I will have unexpected expenses.

Similarly, I don't know if I'll experience any particular transition, but I know there will definitely be transitions in the future.

Expecting transitions changes our relationship with them.

When something happens that meets your expectations, it doesn't feel that bad (or good). That's true, even if it's a negative event.

drawing of meeting expectations

Think about what happens, though, when your expectations aren't met. If you didn't achieve what you hoped, that feels bad. It also feels bad when a bad thing turns out worse than you thought.

drawing of not meeting expectations

The flip side is that when we exceed our expectations, it feels great! This is true when we get more than what we thought. The funny thing is, it's also true when something bad happens. If something bad happens, like a negative transition, but it's not as bad as we thought, it feels pretty good - even though something bad happened. And most of the time, things are not as bad as we think.

drawing of exceeding expectations

We can't stop change - and would want to - but we can better anticipate and prepare for it. Expecting transitions and coping with them adaptively will help you navigate the hows of your life and get you back to your why!

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Hall, Kindra: Choose Your Story, Change Your Life

Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

McAdams, Dan: The Stories We Live By Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor Wallace, David Foster: This is Water



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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