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The Joy of Endings

How reframing life transitions can promote happiness and growth.

Key points

  • We often experience the end of a job or a valued relationship as a tragic failure.
  • However, dreading or avoiding change undermines possibilities for progress and growth.
  • Endings are a normal, inevitable, and important part of being alive — like graduations and the new year.
  • Rather than feeling defeated by life's transitions, we should focus on what we have learned and gained.
FamVeld/Shutterstock/standard license
Source: FamVeld/Shutterstock/standard license

Many of us said goodbye to the old year on December 31. For those who celebrate Lunar New Year, that time of reflection, resolutions, good wishes and fireworks is just around the corner. Unfortunately, our typical attitude toward endings – whether of relationships or careers – is much less sanguine. We all want the movie-style “happy ending” of getting married or landing a dream job. However life doesn’t roll its credits after those high notes, and when careers or families don’t endure, we don’t break out the champagne and party hats. Instead, we believe that these endings are tragic failures. Often we feel that we are tragic failures as well, and the ensuing suffering and torment discourages us from taking on new challenges and robs us of zest for life.

Changing Perspectives on Life Transitions

Growing up, we treat endings as a natural part of life. Graduating from high school, moving out of our childhood homes, and graduating college all entail leaving behind a comfortable environment in which we've been successful for the challenges of the unknown. Nonetheless, we view them as positive changes.

However, between childhood and adulthood, there’s a radical shift in our beliefs about the value of change. We impose on ourselves a standard of life-long stability in our intimate relationships, marriages, homes, and careers. We undertake strenuous, sometimes depleting, efforts to ensure continuity.

But as any parent, Buddhist, or biologist will tell you, life is continuous change. Besides death and taxes, change is the one thing we can all count on. We develop and change over the course of our lives, reaching different stages, developing different perspectives, and becoming different physically, intellectually and emotionally.

Dread of change is also, unintentionally, a rejection of progress. If nothing ever changes, then it can’t — and we can’t — get better. Our tendency to make continuity the primary focus means we overlook the dividends of the serious investments of time, energy, self-control and brain power that we invest in relationships and careers over time. Hopefully, like children advancing grade to grade, we learn enough to prepare us well for the next stage in our lives, as friends, lovers, parents and workers. Instead of assuming that we are failures or rejects when a career or intimate relationship ends, perhaps we should consider that we are graduating. Each of these challenges offers both losses and gains, not the least of which is the (often unacknowledged) pleasure of freedom.

Focusing on Growth, Instead of Loss

Instead of being furious at the boss or lover who pushes us (one way or another) out into the world, perhaps we should embrace them as liberators, or mentors to whom we are grateful. After all, they taught us well, even when what we learned includes that the job or relationship that we loved and hoped might last is no longer right for us.

And sometimes the most important change we can make is to extricate ourselves from a bad situation like a terrible job, an abusive or oppressive relationship, or a one-way friendship. Even these can bear important lessons about what to avoid in the future, and our own courage to escape and stand on our own. And instead of feeling guilt at “abandoning” our bad partner or boss, we can realize that we are providing them with an invaluable lesson in the consequences of treating others badly, and hopefully laying the groundwork for their growth and progress as well.

None of us owe — or can provide — anyone with stability forever. The fact that we are constantly changing precludes that possibility. As Herbert Spencer observed long ago, “A living thing is distinguished from a dead thing by the multiplicity of the changes at any moment taking place in it.” Even if we stay in a particular job or relationship for decades, the reality of it on the inside is entirely different than it was decades earlier. Perhaps what we do owe one another is a modification of Dan Savage’s “campsite rule”: strive to leave your workplace, child, friend, or lover in better shape than you found them.

Facing the Inevitable – and Even Celebrating It

While endings can be terribly painful, and a long-term relationship or job shouldn’t be abandoned lightly, the fact is that many endings are likely to be part of our lives whether we will it or not. We can embrace the inevitability of change that is life, or despair of it. We can see ourselves as graduates of the school of life, or as victims who are prey to trauma, depression and despair. We understand that a diet of failure turns children off from learning, but we fail to apply that wisdom to ourselves as adults.

Rather than feeling deflated and defeated by the passing of any stage in life, we might better direct our energy to the challenges before us. As with each new year, every major life transition should be a time to think about what we have gained and celebrate our progress. As 2024 gets underway, we should resolve to embrace the endings in our lives, if not with joy, at least with grace, humor, and most of all, gratitude.


This piece also appears in The Huffington Post.

Spenser, Herbert. (1864).The Principles of Biology, Vol.1. Williams and Nobgate; 14 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden London.

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