Life is so constructed that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation.
– Charlotte Brontë
Nearly all of us buy into what I call the myths of happiness—beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. This reductive understanding of happiness is culturally reinforced and continues to endure, despite overwhelming evidence that our well-being does not operate according to such black-and-white principles.
One such happiness myth is the notion that “I’ll be happy when ____ (fill in the blank).” I’ll be happy when I net that promotion, when I say “I do,” when I have a baby, when I’m rich, and so on. The false promise is not that achieving those dreams won’t make us happy. They almost certainly will. The problem is that these achievements—even when initially perfectly satisfying—will not make us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we believe they will. Hence, when fulfilling these goals doesn’t make us as happy as we expected, we feel there must be something wrong with us or we must be the only ones to feel this way.
The flip side is an equally pervasive, and equally toxic, happiness myth. This is the belief that “I can’t be happy when ____ (fill in the blank).” When a negative change of fortune befalls us, our reaction is often supersized. We feel that we can never be happy again, that our life as we know it is now over .
My relationship is in trouble. I’ve achieved my dreams but feel emptier than ever. My work isn’t what it used to be. The test results were positive. I have huge regrets. What I hope this book will make singularly clear is that although it may appear that some of these major challenges will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions. Indeed, it is our initial reactions that make these turns of events into crisis points in the first place, instead of the foreseeable and even ordinary passages of life that they actually are. Unfortunately, our initial reactions compel us to choose dramatic (and often devastating) response paths. For example, whereas our first response to the realization that our job no longer brings satisfaction might be to conclude that there is something wrong with the job and immediately begin looking for a position elsewhere, the solution with more long-term rewards may be to try instead to reshape and reconsider our job—to revisit and revise our present-day thoughts and feelings.
Instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change. However, how you greet them really matters: Science shows that chance does favor the prepared mind. I draw on research from several related fields—including positive psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, and clinical psychology—to help those of you facing consequential turning points to choose wisely. The science I describe will offer you a broader perspective—essentially a birds-eyeview of your unique situation—and push you beyond your expectations. I can’t tell you which path to take, but I can help provide the tools so that you can make healthier and more informed decisions on your own. I can help you achieve that prepared mind, the one that knows where happiness really lies and where it doesn’t.