Happiness and the Peak-End Rule

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • Have you ever come back from a vacation only to feel you’ve never been away? You’d think the after-effects of a vacation would correspond to the time spent on it, but as often as not a three week vacation doesn’t actually feel three times better than a one-week vacation. In fact when we look back over our experiences it seems the length of time involved plays very little part in the way we evaluate them. It’s what we psychologists term ‘duration neglect’ because two other issues are much more important to us, namely the intensity of an experience and how the experience ends.


    In a previous post I put forward a quick guide on how to achieve happiness and in it I mentioned the importance of minimizing negative moods and maximizing positive moods and general satisfaction with life. All of which brings me to something called the peak-end rule. Now this rule describes our tendency to judge experiences by the way they end. To explain this the example often offered is that of an uncomfortable dental procedure. It seems we tend to remember the procedure much more favorably if it ends with less pain than more. Now there are lots of experiments to back this claim up. In one experiment volunteers plunged their arms into freezing water for a set period of time. Some kept their arm in freezing water for 30 seconds while others (same temperature) remained for twice the time and finished for a further 30 seconds in water that was just one degree less cold. The people who rated the experience as more painful were those who spent less time in the water. It was the modest effect of slightly less freezing water that allowed those in the longer time group to finish on a more optimistic note.

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    Our memories of events can be fickle and the way we recall and judge them can even be altered fairly easily. Ask a person about their life satisfaction after they’ve made a ‘lucky’ find (another experiment) and it will be higher than if they didn’t. Here’s another example. A long-standing method for teaching people dull or sometimes complex skills is something called chaining. A task, say making a bed, is broken down into its component parts. When teaching the making of a bed the first step for the trainee (and the last step for me) might be putting the pillows on the bed. Why? They get the satisfaction and the reinforcement from finishing the task.


    What does any of this mean for us? There are lots of advantages in remembering the past in a positive light. Reflecting on the bad times and the perceived failures in life is invariably a distortion of the facts and can even lead to depression. So here are some tips:


    • End experiences on a positive note. Leave the easiest or least discouraging task until last. You’ll feel better that way.
    • Keep an eye on your end goals and why you are doing the things you do.
    • If things go wrong, take time to recollect the things that have gone well as they will help to sustain you.
    • When giving a presentation always end on a positive note.
    • When writing feedback always find something redeeming to lift the spirits at the end. It’s good for you and the person receiving it.
    • Make yourself reframe bad experiences in a positive way. What have you learned from it? How can you benefit from it? 
Published On: November 24, 2014