Everybody talks about morning rituals to get the day started right. (Even I have.) But ending the day right can be even more important. Why?
Because your mind ain’t perfect when it comes to happiness. It cheats.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, has shown that your brain really remembers only two things about an event:
- The emotional peak
- The end
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended. This “peak-end” rule of Kahneman’s is what we use to summarize the experience, and then we rely on that summary later to remind ourselves of how the experience felt.
If your brain is gonna cheat, you should cheat back. Let’s game the system. If you structure your days so that the peak is awesome and the ending is awesome you’ll fool your imperfect noggin into a happier life.
How? I am so very happy you asked. Let’s get to it…
1) Have a “Shutdown Ritual”
Workday is over. But your mind is still going and going and going. You gotta get your brain out of “work mode” to relax.
A simple ritual can help. Have a consistent little routine that let’s your overactive brain know “we’re done.”
…support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right.
Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.
Research shows writing down what you need to do the next day relieves anxiety and helps you enjoy your evening.
(To learn the six things the most productive people do every day, click here.)
Now you’re out of “work mode.” You want to get happy, right? Wouldn’t it be great if every day was a Saturday? Impossible?
Wrong, dear reader…
2) Turn Weeknights Into Weekends
First let’s ask: why are weekends so great? Research says the big reason is more time with friends and family:
A large portion of the weekend effects is explained by differences in the amount of time spent with friends or family between weekends and weekdays (7.1 vs. 5.4 hours). The extra daily social time of 1.7 hours in weekends raises average happiness by about 2%.
So don’t just sit on the couch by yourself when you get home. Spend 2 hours with friends or family and you just turned a dull Tuesday night into a happy Saturday.
(To learn how to make your weekends more awesome, click here.)
Okay, you can’t go out and see friends every weeknight. What else makes evenings more enjoyable?
3) Mastery, Not TV
Research shows that “mastery experiences” are also key to helping people recover from the workweek.
So what’s that mean? Doing stuff you’re good at and trying to get better.
Actively engage in a hobby, don’t passively sit on the couch.
Most of us seek unscheduled free time for our leisure but given your brain’s lazy nature, research says you’re likely to waste that time doing what’s easy vs what’s really fun.
Summing up, Csíkszentmihályi says, “If left to their own devices and genetic programming, and without a salient external stimulus to attract them, most people go into a mode of low-level information processing in which they worry about things or watch television.” The antidote to leisure-time ennui is to pay as much attention to scheduling a productive evening or weekend as you do to your workday.
(To learn what Harvard research says is the secret to being happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, you’re actively engaging in a hobby. But your brain does not have an easy “off” switch.
If you want a good night’s snooze you need a ritual that helps you wind down and lets your mind know it’s sleepy time…
4) Wind Down, Don’t Collapse
Dim the lights and turn off all screens at least an hour before bed.
You wouldn’t walk around in bright daylight before trying to sleep for eight hours, would you? Well, when you stare at screens late at night, that’s pretty much what you’re doing.
Ten minutes of a smartphone in front of your nose is about the equivalent of an hour long walk in bright daylight. Imagine going for an hour long walk in bright daylight and then thinking, “Now I’ll get some sleep.” It ain’t going to happen.
(For more on how to get an amazing night’s sleep, click here.)
So no screens. And if you want to maintain a happy relationship, what should you never do before bedtime?
5) Don’t Go To Bed Angry With Your Partner
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed nearly 1500 people age 70 to 100+ for his book “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.” What did they recommend most often for a happy relationship?
…if there was one ubiquitous recommendation about marriage it was this: “Don’t go to bed angry.”
Why might this be so powerful?
…most things that couples disagree upon aren’t worth more than a day’s combat… The joy that many of the experts express on waking in the morning next to a partner of decades is the flip side of this insight. Each additional day together is a gift. The end of the day means the end of hostilities, the recognition that the underlying shared values and commitment to the relationship trump the need for one last dig or self-righteous justification.
Not going to bed angry doesn’t mean “stay up and fight.” Just let it go. Kiss and make up.
(To learn the four most common relationship problems — and how to fix them, click here.)
And it’s probably no surprise that the single most proven method for increasing happiness is something best done before bed. Here it is…
6) Write Down The Good Stuff That Happened
I’ve mentioned this a bunch in the past. But if you’re still not doing it, you need to start. This is all you have to do:
- Put a notepad and pen by the bed.
- Before you go to sleep each night, write down three things that happened that day which you’re thankful for.
- Then write a sentence about why each happened.
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.
Research shows the more you think about happy things the happier you’ll be. Simple but true. So reminders are powerful.
(To learn how to make your life better by sending 5 simple emails, click here.)
Now your brain may cheat when it comes to happiness but it can also be your best ally. Sometimes dreams are far better than reality. How can you use that to your advantage?
7) Schedule Something To Look Forward To
Studies show anticipation can actually be more enjoyable than getting the thing you’re anticipating.
…researchers who studied a thousand Dutch vacationers concluded that by far the greatest amount of happiness extracted from the vacation is derived from the anticipation period…
People who devote time to anticipating fun experiences are happier.
From Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage:
One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent. Often, the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.
Schedule a meal with a friend or designate a time the next day to indulge yourself with something simple that you love to do. Then be excited about it. That’s all it takes.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)
Okay, let’s round all this up and learn the easiest way to get started…
Here’s your new evening ritual for happiness:
- Have a “shutdown ritual.” Write down worries and make a plan for tomorrow. Work is over.
- Turn weeknights into weekends. Weekends are happier because of time with friends. So see friends. Not hard.
- Mastery, not TV. Hobbies make you happier. Spend nights getting awesome at something.
- Wind down, don’t collapse. No screens. No coffee. No skydiving.
- Never go to bed angry with your partner. Kiss and make up. And kiss. And kiss some more.
- Write down the good stuff that happened. Force your brain to think about the good and life will be good.
- Schedule something to look forward to. Anticipation is like 401K matching for happiness. Double the happiness.
Your brain cheats. Cheat back. Plan a good thing for tomorrow to have an emotional high point, end the day right and you can trick your mind into happiness.
And don’t wait. Right now, send this to a friend and plan something fun for tomorrow. That way you’re half done.
As the saying goes, “All’s well that ends well.” So end the day well, my friend.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.