As vacation season ends for many of us — bringing, for some, a sense of dread about the return to workday (if not actual employment) routines — we thought we’d offer a bit of encouragement, which might also help you make the most of a wide range of life’s choices, financial and otherwise. But to do so, we’re going to ask you to play a quick thought-experiment game with us.
Imagine these two contrasting experiences: a one-hour deep-muscle massage and an hour of dental work without benefit of local anesthesia. Now imagine that you can take a brief break during one but not the other. Which would you interrupt? If you’re like most people, you’d break up the drilling. But if you did, you’d most likely be doing yourself a disservice. To see what we mean, you’ll need to consider one of the most powerful influences on emotional well-being: adaptation.
Humans have a remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances. Move into a smaller apartment and it feels cramped — for a while. For most of us, though, it quickly starts to feel familiar and cozy and soon becomes “home.” This works the other way, too. Get a new car and it’s fantastic! The smell, the handling, the sound system; all are great and greatly appreciated. But very quickly the car becomes familiar and routine; nothing special.
Ponder this for just a moment and it becomes clear why you might want to rethink our little thought experiment. Dental work hurts, but less so as time passes. So if you take a break, the pain stands out and returns to its initial level when drilling resumes. Similarly, a massage feels awesome, but soon enough its pleasures don’t register as powerfully. So if you take a break, you’ll notice and take in afresh the full sensory experience.
If this still sounds counterintuitive, there’s research to support our point. Leif Nelson and Tom Myvis, two marketing professors, have shown that interruptions do indeed make positive experiences more enjoyable and negative experiences more unpleasant. But they also find that people nevertheless prefer to take a break in the middle of unpleasant events and allow pleasant experiences to unfold without interruption. In the most remarkable demonstration of this idea, they found that people enjoy watching TV shows more when they are interrupted by commercials than when they’re free of ads. But again, few people anticipate this result and fewer still would choose to sit through ads if they could watch their favorite programs without interruption.
Knowing this — understanding that you can boost your happiness by breaking up pleasant events and concentrating unpleasant ones — might influence all manner of decisions you make. Research suggests, for example, that you’ll get more bang from your vacation buck by taking several small trips (say, 3-4 days) rather than one long one (say, two weeks). And that gift certificate your loved one gave you might be better spent on a few hour-long massages than one entire spa day.
Relaxation is something we adapt to quickly, and people looking to lower stress levels might benefit more from a handful of chilling-outs rather than one long mellowing. Likewise, think carefully about any lump sum payment you’re owed; you might enjoy the money more if you receive it over time. On the other hand, anyone looking to lessen the pain of large expenses would do better to shell out for that car or bedroom set in cash, if possible, because a one-time roundhouse to your savings is less deflating than prolonged monthly jabs. When in doubt, pull Band-Aids off quickly.