Everyone experiences periodic ups and downs, but some people’s lives exhibit extreme events. California anthropologist Gini Graham Scott says, “The idea of turning points in our lives is a powerful one. It's the idea that at a certain point, a big event happens that changes your life irrevocably.”

Writer Lenora Thompson says, “Sometimes, life changes. Overnight or in a split second, nothing is ever the same again. You begin to date your life ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ — before the life-changing event and after it.” I knew a fellow who rode motorcycles and he once told me most motorcyclists date events from the time before or after their “accident.”

There are a number of traumas that can characterize turning points, such as the untimely death of a parent, spouse, sibling or child, a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, losing a job, losing a home, impaired health, losing a significant relationship, a divorce, an affair, a violent assault, or a suicide. Most of these are events that are out of the individual’s control, although some may be related to previous life decisions made over the years. It’s sobering, however, to realize how some luck-of-the draw event can immediately change someone’s life entirely.

Other life turning points may involve major decisions that people make, often after some crisis or epiphany. These might include a religious conversion, a major lifestyle change, or perhaps a decision to enter treatment for an addiction. It’s not a coincidence that the phrase “Turning Point” shows up in the name of behavioral health organizations that provide recovery services.

A turning point can occasionally also hinge on an event that most people would consider positive in nature. These could include things like landing a terrific job, a chance encounter that leads to marriage, or receiving a surprise inheritance or winning the lottery.

One of my father’s favorite television shows was the program, “The Millionaire.” This series that started in 1955 told the stories of people who were given $1 million from an anonymous benefactor. Receiving a million dollars tax-free was a turning point for the recipients on this series. Besides fulfilling everyone’s fantasy, these stories engaged viewers by focusing on the problems that money can bring.

It is not clear that turning points, related to positive events, usually have negative outcomes. In studies of actual high-stakes lottery winners, it was found that these individuals usually do not experience significant personality or behavioral changes after winning, except for spending more money on luxury items, of course. Lump sum lottery winners tended to be more conservative in their spending, while those getting weekly or monthly payments tended to spend more. In general, lottery winners try to maintain their identities and social relationships.

In one study, over 62 percent of lottery winners remained in their same jobs. Some left the workforce and others reduced their hours to spend more time vacationing. Most big winners were able to maintain their wealth over a decade after winning the lottery. While winning the money may not have change their overall level of happiness, it did seem to increase their long-term life satisfaction.

Most individuals go through a series of rather predictable life transitions such as moving from high school to college, from college to the work world, from being single to being married, from being childless to being parents, etc. These transitions, however, are generally predictable and tend to be milder than those events that are considered true turning points. Turning points are more dramatic and usually require much more of an adjustment. When confronted with a turning point (positive or negative) most people typically handle it in one of three ways: (1) They try to withstand the event without making any significant changes; (2) They change any and everything they can; or, most adaptively, (3) They introspect and develop and implement a long-range plan.

Warren Buffett, the famous billionaire investor, has long been a proponent for the role of luck in the course of one’s life. Often, luck confers a sustained advantage or disadvantage to the individual. In fact, one Italian study found that, when success is measured by wealth, then the most successful people are those with only moderate talent but remarkable luck. People with the most talent, ironically, rarely become the most successful. A minimal amount of talent and hard work are necessary for great financial success, but beyond that, it is mostly a matter of good luck. People, however, need to be able to recognize and exploit the good luck they receive.

Angelina Sutin, from the National Institute for Aging, and her colleagues believe that people have a strong need to see their lives as consistent and coherent. Stressful life events, such as turning points, disrupt this sense of stability long after the event itself passes. It was previously thought that people were fairly resilient and could readily adapt to negative life events, often using them as learning experiences. More recent research suggests that the process may be more difficult and time consuming than was originally thought. For example, even a positive event may take up to two years to process and assimilate, while an extremely negative event, such the loss of a spouse, may average seven or more years for even a marginal adaptation. The negative effects of the loss of a job may linger long after a new, even better job is obtained.

To cope with negative turning points, it has been suggested that people can build up their resilience by expanding their social networks, developing a number of outside interests, and getting involved in volunteer, civic and charitable activities. The problem remains, however, that they usually don’t know which form the inevitable hardship will take. As for positive turning points, we all can probably handle winning the lottery without much preparation or effort.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.