The Peak-End Rule to Happiness


The peak-end rule describes the way we judge experiences by the way they end. Here’s a familiar example. You’ve been on a fantastic two- week vacation and after just a couple of hours at work it’s like you’ve never been away.

How come the afterglow doesn’t last the same length of time as the vacation? Why doesn’t a two week vacation feel twice as good as a one week vacation?

When we look back over the good times it seems the length of time involved doesn’t influence how we think about it. Psychologists call this duration neglect and that’s because two other issues are much more important to us, namely the intensity of the experience and the way in which it ended.

Here’s another example. People who have had an uncomfortable dental procedure remember it more favourably if it ends with less pain than more. Memories can be pretty fickle and the way we recall stuff and think about them can even be altered fairly easily. Ask a person about their life satisfaction after they’ve made a ‘lucky’ find (an experiment) and it will be higher than if they didn’t.

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

  • End what you do 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?
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