The Peak End Rule: Create The Best Experiences With Defining Moments
Every person has had their happiest moment at different times. But if you were to survey a group of people, you’ll find that a particular location comes up more often than the others.
No place manufactures happiness better than Disney World. A few steps into the theme park will tell you as much.
The 1900s style of buildings makes you feel like you’re in a new world. The staff and characters are all well-dressed and friendly. You are greeted by welcoming and relaxing music which gradually becomes more upbeat and makes you feel more excited as you venture deeper into the park.
That’s just the beginning. Then there are the rides which tell different stories, not to mention the roller coasters which get your heart racing. If that’s not for you, there are also the numerous performances. Not to mention all the catchy Disney theme songs that you can’t help singing along to.
At the end of the day, Disney closes off with an elaborate 20-minute firework display and screen performance. It’s at that moment where your favourite childhood characters come to life. Nothing really comes close.
If there’s anything that would qualify as a peak experience, a trip to Disney World would be it.
The Disney Paradox
Nobody complains about their experience at Disney World. But things would look very different if we were to do a minute-by-minute account of our time spent at the theme park. In fact, there’s a lot to be unhappy about.
It’s difficult to move about because the entire place is swarmed. The lines at the rides go on forever, sometimes lasting over an hour. It’s hot and humid, and you can’t stop perspiring. Want to grab a hot dog or a cold drink? That’ll be ten bucks, please.
There’s a good chance you’ll be happier spending the entire day on your couch binge-watching Netflix. Yet for some their trip to Disney World could be the highlight of the year. Why the disconnect?
Chip and Dan Heath have an explanation for that. Here’s their answer in The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact:
“When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length. Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the peak and (2) the ending [..] What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by minute sensations”
It’s also what psychologists have called the Peak-End rule. It explains why people remember taking photos with Mickey Mouse, their Space Mountain rides and the closing show. But we never think about the inconvenience and hours spent queuing for the highlights when we look back.
The Importance of Peak Experiences
This doesn’t mean that negative moments — what the Heath brothers term “pits “ — don’t matter.
Indeed, any good organisation who hopes to create peak experiences make sure that these pits are filled. That’s why Disney has interesting displays, have performers interact with guests, and make sure you know how long you can expect to wait.
Most of us seem to get that. But what’s striking is that many business leaders never go on to create peak moments after filling up the pits. Here’s what the Heath brothers say in The Power of Moments:
“Instead, having filled the pits in their service, they scramble to pave the potholes — the minor problems and annoyances. It’s as though the leaders aspire to create a complaint-free service rather than an extraordinary one”.
The lesson applies to all of us as well. You don’t have to fix every bad part of your experience. Some negative experiences are negligible — and at worst tolerable — if you can fill in the gaps with other peak moments. In the end, they are probably all that you’ll remember.
Chip and Dan suggest that any peak moment requires at least one of the four elements below, with the best having all four:
- Elevation: these are moments of happiness that transcend the normal course of events through sensory pleasures and surprise
- Pride: these are moments that capture us at our best; whether it be moments of achievement or moments of courage
- Insight: these are our eureka moments; they change our understanding of ourselves of the world and give us a moment of sobering clarity
- Connection: these are moments which are social in nature; think weddings, graduations, baptisms and parades
We go through a variety of rituals and ceremonies. Many of these aim to commemorate some form of milestone or evolution. But the thing is that these special moments are all time-based. Imagine looking back on your life only to find that the only defining moments you’ve had are your graduation, your wedding, and your retirement.
You don’t have to wait for peak experiences. They don’t need years of waiting. Most of the milestones that we celebrate are social constructs; we celebrate them only because others do. But if something’s important, you don’t have to follow the crowd. You can create them yourself.
That’s how some people can have enough meaningful experiences to fill several lifetimes. And unfortunately for others, it may mean that they’ve never really lived at all.
Thinking in Moments
I’m a big fan of Stoicism.
It’s an ancient philosophy which teaches us that there are some things which we can’t control. Amor Fati, or love your fate, as Nietzsche called it.
And yet, we have more control over our experiences than we realise. We can’t fill up every pit and prevent tragedy from befalling us. But guess what? We don’t have to. As we’ve established earlier, all we really need to do is create a few peak moments.
Our experiences are really defined by the small things. And these small things are within our control.