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The Peak End Rule

What connects us as human beings besides our bodies? Yes, we all have eyes, ears, a heart, but what about our emotions? The most obvious and idealistic answer is a laundry list of abstract terms: joy, compassion, anxiety, anger, sadness. We assume that we know how to love, and while that certainly is generally true, not every human being understands how to give and receive it. We all, however, understand pain. Whether emotional or physical, each of us understands what it feels like to hurt.

The desperation causes fear. When will it happen again? We do whatever we can to avoid it.

It’s an interesting human phenomenon: while we want nothing but positive, celebratory-worthy experiences, we remember the difficult ones, the challenges and obstacles. Perhaps our brains are wired that way in an effort to caution us to tread through life carefully.

I’ve recently discovered the power of the “peak-end rule.” When something is painful, for a sustained period of time, if the last few minutes isn’t, we tend to label the experience as “not quite so bad.” Memory is slippery. The more you try to hold onto it, the more elusive it is, like trying to catch a butterfly without a net. And over time, we tend to make those moments into what we want them to be because that is comfortable and reassuring.

There has been a great deal of research on how we process moments into memory. For example, if we go to a wonderful concert, but get in an accident on the way home that leaves us standing on the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck or fall in the parking lot and end up in the emergency room with a broken arm, we tend to forget the hours of toe tapping music and the pleasure it brings, choosing instead to focus on the less than desirable ending.

The quality of the pleasurable experiences we have are important, especially as we grow older or count the remaining years of our lives. I’ve learned that a chat with a dear friend or savoring those fruit bars I’ve become so fond of mean more than they did a few years ago. The small moments are significant and important. And for now, I am grabbing all of the enjoyable experiences that I can. You should, too!

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