Combat stress with the peak-end rule

10 Sep, 2018

This blog will help you to turn your stressful PhD experience into a happier one. Instead of remembering difficult situations and the associated negative emotions, you will remember pleasant moments and positive feelings. To achieve this, it is enough to focus on only two moments in your entire day, using the peak-end rule . First I will describe what the peak-end rule is, and then I will describe how to use it to improve your experience at work. At the end of this blog I will give you suggestions how to apply this rule to your personal life as well.


Do you need the peak-end rule?

Our willingness to repeat an experience is based on the remembered pleasure or pain associated with the experience in the past. For instance, if you hurt yourself when you fell off the balance beam during gymnastics class, you likely preferred other apparatuses in the classes that followed. Similarly, your enthusiasm to start your working day is dependent on your memory of previous working days. You will be less eager to go to work when you mostly remember feeling bored at your desk, or frustrated in the lab, or anxious during a meeting with your supervisor. Instead of going to work happily, you may prefer to stay in your bed, procrastinate on social media, or even call in sick. If this is your situation, you definitely want to start enjoying your work more using the peak-end rule.


The peak-end rule and science

The peak-end rule is a psychological rule that states that the memory of an experience is valued by its peak and end moments , while the rest of the experience is ignored. The peak is the most intense (positive or negative) moment, and the end is how the experience ended. The peak-end rule was discovered by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues. Their paper  ‘When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end’ was published in 1993 in Psychological Science. They showed that a majority of volunteers preferred a painful experience that lasted longer, but ended more pleasantly, over a shorter painful experience. A similar effect was found in a 2003 study  on the experience of colonoscopies, also performed by Kahneman and colleagues. Later it was demonstrated that the peak-end rule does not just apply to the experience of physical pain. A study  by Bridgid Finn, published in 2010, demonstrates that the peak-end rule also applies to psychologically demanding situations, like studying. Students were asked to study lists of difficult English-Spanish translations. They preferred a longer list that ended with easier words to a shorter list, and they thought it took them less time to study the longer list. The peak-end rule even applies to your own academic life.


Your graduation ceremony

Academia has (unknowingly) used the peak-end rule to improve the overall experience of PhD training. Every PhD candidate will struggle and face difficult challenges. Extrapolated from the peak-end rule research, graduates are likely to prefer a longer, difficult PhD training with a relatively good ending, to a shorter, difficult PhD training which ends harshly.
Therefore universities offer PhD candidates a pompous, formal, and festive graduation ceremony!  The ceremony makes up for the struggles PhD candidates had to go through to get there. The overall memory of their PhD training is immensely improved by the ceremony. Luckily you do not need something as big as a graduation ceremony to improve your PhD experience.


Implementing the peak-end rule and improving your PhD experience

Now that you know about the peak-end rule, you can use it to improve your everyday experiences, starting with work. The two moments to focus on are the peak and the end of your day. The first step is to take look at your experiences at work. Which moments have been the highlights and the low points in your PhD training so far? And how do you feel about the way you usually finish your day at work? You can then apply the peak-end rule to this knowledge to create your own, happy PhD experience. Using two examples I will demonstrate how to do this. In these examples I’ve followed the assumptions that the peak and end of an experience have a 50/50 impact on the overall experience, and that happiness can be condensed to and expressed in numbers.

Example 1
Maybe having lunch with your colleagues is the usual highlight of your day, and you generally end your day feeling angry with yourself because you did not finish your to-do list (figure 1). In this case the biggest improvement would be to end your day on a happier note. Plan to do enjoyable tasks at the end of your day, and you will feel happier overall.



Small, smart changes to your daily planning can have a large impact on your overall happiness

Example 2
Your typical day includes a particularly unpleasant experiment in the afternoon, after which you end the day making graphs for your thesis, which you enjoy a lot (figure 2). You could reduce the unpleasantness of the experiment by changing techniques, asking colleagues for help, or maybe using the peak-end rule by making the ending of the experiment nicer. This way the peak of your day would shift away from the experiment in the afternoon. Instead, your nice morning would become your peak moment of the day, and your overall experience would become positive.


These two examples show that small, smart changes in your daily planning and approach to activities at work can have a large impact on your overall happiness. Once you’ve identified the moments that have the biggest impact on your emotional wellbeing at work, you can make small changes to your day that will bring your overall PhD experience to a whole new level of happiness!


Other uses of the peak-end rule

The peak-end rule can be applied in many other ways. The variety of potential applications of the peak-end rule is enormous. Here’s a list to inspire you.

–          Ask your supervisor to always end your meetings by giving you a compliment

–          Never go to bed being angry with your partner

–          If you have a particularly unpleasant experience, make sure you treat yourself to a pleasant experience later in the same day, so the positive experience will make up for the negative one

–          Go out to do something fun on your free day, and make it memorable

–          Just before going to sleep, meditate for a few minutes on all the things you are grateful for that day.

–          When exercising, reduce the intensity of the exercise in the last few minutes

–          When preparing for a test, plan to study the easiest topics towards the end

–          When having guests over, make sure the evening ends with a laugh

–          Each morning before going to work, set a positive intention. This will bring your focus to positive peaks, and keep it away from negative peaks.


If you want to know more…

…  about coping with chronic stress, you can read all about it here

… about the way coaching could help you improve your PhD experience, check out my homepage 



Carousel image made by Jill111 at Pixabay.

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