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4 Ways to Find Happiness When Life Doesn't Turn Out as Planned

4. Re-imagine what a fulfilling life looks like.

Key points

  • The loss of an imagined future can involve a grieving process worthy of being taken seriously.
  • Savoring positive experiences can help people find more joy in life, especially in challenging times.
  • People who think of their lives as journeys through adversity may experience a greater sense of purpose.
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Despite our best efforts, the dreams we have for our lives don’t always come to fruition. A relationship may fall apart; aspirations for a career or parenthood may not pan out; chronic illness or injury may limit what we can do.

Adjusting to permanent and unwanted changes can be overwhelming. In the void left by what was lost, it can be hard to imagine an alternative path that will fulfill us the way the other could. But research suggests that we are often more resilient than we think, and that happiness may be possible in ways we never expected. The following are four strategies that can help us embrace a different life than the one we planned.

1. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of the life you wanted.

We typically think of grief in the context of the death of a loved one. Although different, other kinds of losses can also cause grief, but often go unacknowledged. Research on disenfranchised grief has found that when grief isn’t recognized as legitimate in a given situation, those suffering may be less likely to receive support, which can harm their mental health. As a first step, simply recognizing that an experience is a painful loss worthy of compassion can go a long way.

2. Avoid idealizing other people’s lives.

Reminders of a loss tend to turn up everywhere. After a breakup, for example, it can seem like everyone else is happily coupled. But the glimpses we get into others’ lives can be skewed, because people often feel more comfortable sharing the good stuff while keeping the harder stuff private.

This imbalance leads us to underestimate others’ suffering, research finds, which can make us feel more isolated and less satisfied with our own lives. Recognizing that we don’t always have the full picture can not only help us be more attentive to and supportive of others’ struggles; it can also help us feel less alone in our own.

3. Savor the good things.

Just as it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve, without an expiration date, it’s equally important to give ourselves permission to be happy, despite the voice that might be in our heads saying that’s inconceivable. After certain types of loss, some of the activities that brought us joy may no longer be possible, but we might find different kinds of joy in new pursuits, or deeper joy in old ones.

Research suggests that the ability to savor positive experiences, even simple things like spending time in nature or having a good meal, is associated with greater well-being. Savoring involves being present, paying attention to what we’re experiencing, and appreciating the enjoyment it brings us.

4. Re-imagine what a fulfilling life looks like.

We might hope for smooth sailing, but a life with unexpected challenges can also end up being a more meaningful one. Recent research has found that when people think about their lives in ways that resemble the Hero’s Journey, a type of story structure seen in many popular books and movies, they are better able to bounce back in stressful times and feel a greater sense of purpose.

This narrative framework involves a protagonist being called to adventure, confronting obstacles, being transformed by new experiences and relationships, and ultimately giving back to their community. When viewed from this lens, what starts out feeling like a devastating turn of events might end up being the call to adventure that sets a new journey in motion.

The life we planned may have been a great one, but it was no guarantee of happiness. Even people who get everything they want are not immune to disappointment and regret. What an unexpected life lacks in predictability or ease it can make up for in possibility, including the possibility that against all odds, in ways we never could have foreseen, it ends up being the life we wanted.

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Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59 (1), 20–28.

Doka, K. J. (2008). Disenfranchised grief in historical and cultural perspective. In M. S. Stroebe, R. O. Hansson, H. Schut, & W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention (pp. 223–240). American Psychological Association

Hurley D. B., Kwon P. (2013). Savoring helps most when you have little: interaction between savoring the moment and uplifts on positive affect and satisfaction with life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1261–1271.

Jordan, A. H., Monin, B., Dweck, C. S., Lovett, B. J., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2011). Misery has more company than people think: Underestimating the prevalence of others’ negative emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120–135.

Rogers, B. A., Chicas, H., Kelly, J. M., Kubin, E., Christian, M. S., Kachanoff, F. J., Berger, J., Puryear, C., McAdams, D. P., & Gray, K. (2023). Seeing your life story as a Hero’s Journey increases meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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