The Broken Promise Effect

A time-zone change hijacked our Thanksgiving last year.

My wife and I needed a getaway, and when we stumbled across an extraordinary holiday package, we decided to go for it. We flew east across the country enticed by thoughts of long days relaxing in the sunshine. After a few days, however, we noticed the days going by quicker than anticipated. We finally figured out why. Our holiday destination was three hours ahead of our body clocks. We were waking up at about 10 a.m. and the sun was setting at 5 p.m. Our jet lag made the days seem short. We experienced the broken promise effect.       

A virus hijacked our family plans last Christmas. It was a big disappointment.

We spent months organizing a road trip to Oregon and Utah. We planned to stay with family members we seldom see in both states. The first stop in Oregon was wonderful. In fact, everything turned out better than we had hoped. Then we got the phone call. Our family in Utah informed us that three of them had tested positive for the virus. The second leg of our journey was canceled. We experienced the broken promise effect.

The broken promise effect is a phenomenon first described in 1987 by M. Baier in the academic journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. Baier documented how when holidays do not live up to expectations, people experience a negative mood in the days afterward. It’s not all that surprising. If reality falls short of expectations, we feel disappointed.

Last year we had high expectations for our Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Given all the effort we put into planning, we expected to have a great time. And yet, despite our efforts, we experienced the broken promise effect. You have experienced it too.

The Ups and Downs of the Holidays

The expectations we put on the holidays can set us up for a letdown, but they also can lead to blessed outcomes. Research reveals that people’s moods typically are more positive prior to major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. The elevated mood is fueled by the anticipation of a good experience ahead.

When we are in a good mood, according to researchers, we are also more likely to make optimistic judgments. Studies in behavioral economics have revealed that stock market returns in the days prior to major holidays generally are significant and positive. Decision-making before a holiday is more likely to be influenced by optimism than pessimism. This optimism often influences people to spend more money in the days leading up to a holiday (though this optimism may result in regret when the bills arrive!).

Suicide rates go down prior to major holidays. People who are struggling with suicidal ideation seem to “postpone” acting on these thoughts prior to these big days on the calendar. Unfortunately, research reveals that the “suicide immune system” activated prior to a holiday soon starts to weaken. Among the possible reasons for this breakdown: increased alcohol consumption, insufficient sleep, reminders of financial difficulties, family arguments, a holiday that failed to live up to expectations, or a realization that joy of the experience was ending.

The Christian’s Guide to Navigating the Holidays

Christians should be aware that major holidays amplify the dynamic range of human experience. And the people we shepherd and the people we are trying to reach with the gospel are not the only ones prone to experience this broad range of emotions—Christian leaders are, as well. We can benefit from viewing holidays with great promise, but we also can face the broken promise effect as high hopes for the holidays fall short of expectations. Holidays can elevate joy or deliver disappointment . . . for everyone.

Holidays are an emotionally complicated time. A family that recently has lost a loved one typically experiences some sadness during the ensuing Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. As Christians, we join them in their grief. We climb into the experience of the broken promise effect with those who mourn. Then, perhaps only an hour later, we can be called into a more joyful holiday celebration. Navigating this vast dynamic range of human experience is draining. Jumping back and forth on the joy-sorrow continuum, sharing in people’s optimism and disappointments, is hard on one’s soul. So, how should I navigate this?

First, be aware that the vast dynamic range of human experience is usually amplified around major holidays. Muster your courage for the extra emotional load you will carry in the season. Second, don’t suppress your own need for recharging your spirit on the other side of the holiday. Finally, and most important, remind yourself that the foundation of our faith and life is not subject to the broken promise effect. Jesus declared,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).

This hope can keep us optimistic and in the spirit of this special season!

W. Beavis

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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