The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Resentful Recipients, Exciting Exercises, and Ungrateful Guests

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Hi, Dan.

For many years, I have given elaborate gift baskets to my friends and family for Christmas. Last year I learned that some of them felt the need to reciprocate with a gift of a similar cost, which made them uncomfortable. I give these gifts because I enjoy it and because I love my friends and family, not because I expect anything in return. How can I communicate that it is okay to just send me a Christmas card and nothing more?

—George 

It might be impossible for the recipient of a gift not to feel obligated to reciprocate in some way. The need for reciprocity is one of the beautiful things about human nature: It is a building block of society, and we wouldn’t want to eliminate it even if we could. So while you might not need any gifts, I wouldn’t deprive your friends and family of the chance to give you something. Instead, encourage them to find a gift that is meaningful but simple and cheap.

Last year, when I turned 50, I faced a similar dilemma: I wanted to have a big birthday party and invite my friends, but I didn’t want them to feel any pressure to give me gifts. Even if I had asked them not to bring gifts, however, it’s unlikely people would come empty-handed. Instead, I asked everyone to give me a copy of their favorite book and to write on the first page why it was so important to them. This way, I got a shelf of books to read for the next year, and my friends got to satisfy their urge to reciprocate.

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Hi, Dan.

My husband is 72 years old and recently retired. He goes to the gym about twice a week, but his doctor has told him that physical activity throughout the day is very important for him, since he has hypertension. How can I help him get into the habit of moving around? We are a pretty low-tech family, but should I get him a pedometer so he can track his steps?

—Florence 

I don’t think that tracking steps is going to get the job done by itself. Tracking devices operate on the premise that, if we only knew we exercised too little, we would change our behavior. But the truth is that most of us already know we don’t move around enough. If I were you, I would ask family members to encourage your husband to go for walks several times a day. Even better, tell him that you want to go for a walk and suggest that he come with you. That way you will create social pressure on him to get moving.

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Dear Dan,

We take pride in our home and expect visitors to treat it with respect. But we have a relative who does not share that sentiment: When she visits, she slams doors and spills food without cleaning it up. How can we bring this up to her without causing a rupture in our relationship?

—Anonymous 

I would start by telling her that different people have different preferences for how they want their home and possessions to be treated and that you are meticulous about your things. Tell her that while she has the right to treat her own things however she likes, when she is at your place her behavior distracts you and makes it hard to fully enjoy her company. Hopefully this will be sufficiently gentle but still make the point.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Floral Futures, Meaningful Memories, and Dating Decisions

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m planning my wedding, and my fiancée and I disagree about one major topic—the flowers. All of the options we’ve seen are incredibly expensive, and I’m just not comfortable spending so much money on something that’s only going to last a day or two. But my fiancée feels the wedding wouldn’t be complete without flower arrangements at every table. Is there any way I can change her mind?

—Kevin 

If I were you, I wouldn’t attack the cost of the flowers but their symbolic meaning. In your fiancee’s mind, flowers probably represent youth, beauty and nature—all wonderful things to have represented at a wedding. On the other hand, you could argue that flowers are also symbolic of transitoriness—something that is here today but will wilt tomorrow. Why not try telling her that you don’t want a symbol of something short-lived in your wedding? Instead, try to convince your fiancée to spend it on something long lasting such as furniture or a new convertible.. That way, you’ll be spending money on things that are symbolic of your long future together.

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Hi, Dan.

My dog lived to be 14 years old, but the last six months of his life were really hard. This only amounted to about 3% of his time with me, but when I think about him now, it’s his bad last days that I remember most vividly, not the healthy and happy years we had together. Why is this?

—Jeremy 

Psychologists have found that our memories of an experience are strongly influenced by the way it ends—the last day of a vacation, the last scene of a movie. So it’s no wonder that your memories of your dog are colored by the end of his life. I’d suggest that you try to give yourself a new ending to focus on. Write down your good memories about your dog, ask friends to add their own stories and then spend some time just going over these positive memories. They’ll become the new conclusion of your dog’s story.

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Dear Dan,

I have been using the dating app Tinder for a while. When I’m swiping right and left it’s fun, and exchanging texts with potential dates is enjoyable, but when we meet face to face, it’s often immediately clear that things are not going to go anywhere. Then I just try to count the minutes until I can politely say goodbye. What can I do to end a first date quickly but politely? And when a date does look promising, how can I be sure that we are really going to be compatible?

—Andrea

The answer to both questions is the same: Combine the date with an errand! Arrange to meet your date at a coffee shop near a supermarket. After ten minutes of having coffee together, suggest that you continue your date while shopping and take out your shopping list. That way, if the date is going nowhere, at least you are multitasking and making better use of your time. And if the date is going well, research shows that doing an activity together tells you more about compatibility than just interviewing one another in a coffee shop.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Punctual Pals, Valuable Voters, and Empowered Employees

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Hi, Dan.

I have a dear friend who is always late. I love spending time with him, but I can’t help feeling miffed when I’m kept waiting at a noisy bar, twiddling my thumbs and checking my watch. He often turns up after a half hour with an elaborate excuse about the subway system or a snafu with his dog. His wonderful company usually makes me forgive him, but this pattern of wasting my time is really frustrating. What can I do?

—Charles 

Unfortunately, waiting around for your friend to show up is probably reinforcing his behavior. I would suggest setting a strict deadline and sticking to it, though this might cause some friction initially. When you make an appointment, warn your friend that you are only going to wait for 10 minutes; if he doesn’t show up by then, leave. Over time, this should teach your friend to be more punctual, which will help his relationship with you—and maybe with others as well.

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Hi, Dan.

Many of my friends and coworkers say they care about voting, but their spotty track record suggests otherwise. How can I convince them to go out and vote in the upcoming election?

—Georgia 

My guess is that your friends are not lying to you—they do care about voting, and they may even plan to vote. But on Election Day, they get derailed by other obligations. To change their priorities, I would try to make the voting process a social event. Invite your friends and coworkers to meet at a bar or restaurant near the polling place, and when they show up, tell them that you’re buying beer only for people who have already voted. Encourage them to go to the polls in small groups and come back quickly. By combining fun and personal accountability, you’ll make voting much more compelling.

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Hi, Dan.

I work for a tech company, and our performance reviews are coming up soon. The reviews are used to determine who will get a bonus. Unfortunately, my performance is usually in the middle of the pack, and I have yet to receive a bonus. I understand the logic for giving bonuses to the most productive employees, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, and my motivation is suffering—which makes my chances of getting a bonus even lower. Do you think that bonuses are a good way of motivating employees?

—Kayla 

Bonuses are a more complex topic than most people think, and it’s certainly not the case that they always lead to better performance. A few years ago, my colleagues and I worked with a large company that gave its top employees weekly bonuses, which could make up as much as 30% of their income. Obviously, the good employees got the bonuses week after week, while the not-so-good employees got nothing.

By changing the way that performance was calculated, we enabled average employees to earn bonuses from time to time. The result was that the company’s overall productivity increased. Why? Because the motivation of middle-of-the-road employees makes a meaningful contribution to the bottom line. A good incentive system has to take into account the fact that feeling valued and acknowledged is important to everyone.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Green Groceries, Party Presents, and Reluctant Reviews

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Hi Dan.

My wife is pretty involved with green initiatives—in particular, reducing plastic waste. She tries to get bars and restaurants to stop offering plastic straws, she purchases products that do not use plastic packages, and once a month we volunteer to clean up trash in public spaces. So I’m baffled that she doesn’t have the same reaction to wasting food. When it’s her turn to go grocery shopping, she always brings home such an excess of fruits and vegetables that many of them rot before we have a chance to eat them. We’ve had many conversations about this, but nothing has worked so far. What can I do?

—Diégo 

It is often the case that when we care a lot about one thing, we focus on it to the exclusion of other priorities. So don’t take your wife’s behavior too personally, and don’t try repeatedly to educate her about it. Instead, why don’t you simply help by making a shopping list? When we go shopping with a shopping list we are likely to stick to it. If you write down the specific amount of needed fruits and vegetables, the odds are that the waste problem will be solved.

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Hi, Dan.

My son Joey is turning one year old, and we’re throwing a birthday party for him. People usually give toys on such occasions, but I’d like to ask them to give him money instead. How can I do this without seeming rude?

—Felipe 

It’s always tricky to use a social occasion to ask people for money. To sweeten the pill, I would ask people to donate toward a specific goal. For example, what if you told your guests that you want to open a college savings account for Joey? You could ask them not just to give money but also to write down advice for him to read when he goes to college. Ask your guests to write their messages in a book that you can give to Joey when he turns 18.

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Dear Dan,

I have several friends who have self-published books on Amazon. After reading the books, I am usually aghast at the poor quality of the writing, and sometimes there is even a gross twisting of the truth in the retelling of a life experience that I have seen firsthand. Even so, I try to say something positive—without getting into too many details—but then my friends ask me to submit an online review, to go along with all the other five-star reviews they somehow managed to get. I care about my friends, but I also don’t want to give a false recommendation. How would you handle this conflict?

—Jerry 

Life is full of situations where we are asked to trade our integrity for other interests, such as sparing the feelings of a friend. But once we start giving up our integrity, it is a slippery slope: We are likely to do it more and more until at some point we stop feeling bad about it. What does this mean in your case? Writing a positive review of a book you don’t like may seem like a one-time sacrifice of honesty for the sake of friendship. But given that your long-term integrity is also on the line, I would not give it up. Gently decline your friend’s request for a review—but do keep on investing in your friendship.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Blueberry Buffets, Compliment Condiments, and Historical Habits

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I have a farm where people come to pick blueberries, and I charge $3 per pound. The problem is that people think it is an open buffet and eat a lot of blueberries while in the field, and then they come back to the payment station with just $3 worth of blueberries. Without being rude, how can I let them know that they are stealing?

—Michelle 

I must admit that when I’ve picked blueberries I too ate a few in the process. It’s just so tempting that I think it’s inhuman to ask people not to eat any. So if we accept that people will eat some blueberries in the process of picking, maybe the best approach is to charge an entrance fee to cover the cost of the snacking. But make sure to call it an entrance fee and not a snacking fee—otherwise people will try to maximize their benefit by eating even more blueberries.

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Dear Dan,

Conventional wisdom says that when providing criticism, you should use a “compliment sandwich,” that is, say something nice, give the critique and then end with something nice again. Have there been any studies regarding the effectiveness of this practice? It seems to me that the person may just hear and remember the positive parts, and that the impact of the criticism would be lost.

—Andrew 

“Compliment sandwiches” certainly feel less painful than sheer critiques—but they don’t seem to be particularly effective. According to a study by Jay Parkes, Sara Abercrombie and Teresita McCarty, published in 2013 in the journal Advances in Health Sciences Education, people who received “compliment sandwiches” were more likely to believe that the feedback would improve their performance. But they didn’t actually do any better than those who received more straightforward criticism. The good news is that the sandwich method did not get them to perform any worse either—it just made no difference. It is really hard to change people’s behavior, and a single piece of feedback is not going to do much, no matter how it is phrased.

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Dear Dan,

I teach computer science 101, and I’ve recently started thinking of ways to get students to begin their work earlier in the semester. Research has shown that if they start earlier, they are likely to put more time into their project and get a better grade. I wonder if it would be useful to send a daily email reminder asking the students to start working on their project today. What do you think?

—Kristin 

A daily reminder is a good start, and it should certainly help the students to get going. But it would be even more powerful to give concrete instructions and make use of social comparison. What if the email didn’t just ask them to work on their project today but specifically told them to spend 30 minutes on it? You could also tell them something about the work habits of students who do well in the class—for example, “Historically, the students who got an A in this class started working on their projects early and worked on them consistently throughout the semester.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

A Phone Favor

Hi,

I would like to ask you for a favor.

I am interested in how people set up their phones. To try to understand this, I have set up a short study (about 10 minutes long).

If you are willing to participate, please click the following link. If you find this study interesting, please also send it to to some friends!

Note that the study is set up as if you were setting up a new Android phone, but it is designed to get input from both Apple and Android users.

Many thanks,

Dan

And the link is:

https://danarielylabs.com/MyNewAndroid

Ask Ariely: On Invasive Inquiry, Circumcision Conversation, and Admirable Advice

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a single woman in my mid 30s. I get invited to a lot of cocktail parties, which I don’t particularly enjoy, but I feel I have to go. To make things worse, during these parties people who I know only superficially often feel free to ask me why I am so wonderful and yet unmarried. I have some real answers to this question (I didn’t find the right person, I’m very excited about my career right now), but mostly I’m annoyed that they have the audacity to ask me such a personal and complex question as a form of small talk. How would you deal with this situation?

—Jax 

It is indeed odd that while so many topics are considered taboo for standard small-talk—how much do you earn? what are your sexual preferences?—others that should be considered just as personal, like marital status, are considered fair game. With this in mind, I think that your job is not to answer the question but to demonstrate to the people asking it how inappropriate it is.

I’d suggest that you respond by saying: “That’s a very personal question. Before we talk about me, can you tell me what aspects of your life you wish were different?” It might be difficult to say this in the beginning, but my guess is that if you stick to it for a few cocktail parties, it will become second nature. A side benefit of this approach is that you might get invited to these parties less often.

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Dear Dan,

I am Jewish, and my wife is agnostic. We are both economists and big fans of your work. Our first son was circumcised as a newborn. We are now waiting for our second boy, and we are not sure what to do. My wife prefers not to have him circumcised, and I prefer to have it done for ritual reasons. Any hint how to approach this decision?

—Michael 

On this question, there is a long list of very different pros and cons. Against circumcision is the argument that sexual pleasure is said to be greater for the uncircumcised—though this is difficult to measure. On the other hand, some authorities say that a circumcised penis is easier to clean, and there is data that suggests circumcision reduces the odds of contracting HIV. In the end, of course, only you can decide how important the religious aspect of circumcision is to you. But since your first son was circumcised according to your preference, it would seem fair for your wife to make the decision for your second child.

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Dear Dan,

What was the best advice you ever got?

—Alison 

It was when I was a Ph.D. student interviewing for my first academic job. I had a few offers, and one of my advisers suggested that I pick the department most different from where I had studied, in order to force myself to learn new things. I did, and I learned a lot over the next 10 years. Generally, I think it is good advice to think about such choices not as the immediate next step but in terms of how they will help us to develop in the long run.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Pickleball Problems, Calorie Compensation, and Friend Finding

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I play the paddle sport pickleball on outdoor courts at our local city park. During the season, the members of our association have to clean up the courts at the end of each day, which takes about 15 minutes.

As you might expect, few people volunteer regularly, and pleas for more help fall on deaf ears. I recently suggested to the group’s executive board that we should pay members who help clean up, but my idea was shot down. The reasoning was that we are a volunteer organization and should not pay for such services. How can we get more people to pitch in?

—John 

Paying a few members to clean the courts is always an option. But if you start paying for cleaning, it will change how those who clean and those who don’t treat each other. So I would try other methods first.
One effective approach is to use social shaming. What if the pickleball association posted the names of all the members on a large poster board and used markings to show how often each person cleaned the courts? What if, next to the names of the people who did not help even once, there was a large question mark? My guess is that the desire to appear to be a team player rather than a freeloader could motivate many more people to contribute to the cleaning effort.

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Hi Dan,

I am a doctor specializing in obesity management, and one of the challenges we face in my practice is something called the “Last Supper” effect. We find that patients who know they are about to undergo weight loss surgery tend to binge during the two weeks prior to the procedure, gaining anywhere from five to 20 pounds. Do you have any suggestions for how we might be able to change this pattern?

—Adrian 

My colleagues and I carried out research at our lab at Duke University that might shed some light on this question. We asked one group of participants to indulge in food and compensate for it by reducing their calorie consumption later. Meanwhile, we asked another group to create an “indulgence bank,” going on a diet first and indulging only after they “saved” enough calories to compensate.

It turns out that when people indulged first, they didn’t compensate enough and ended up gaining weight. But when they saved calories by dieting first, they realized how much hard work it was and didn’t want to “spend” all their savings by eating more.

With this in mind, I would ask patients to start two months before the weight-loss procedure and spend the first six weeks creating an indulgence bank by reducing their calorie intake. Then they can “celebrate” by eating freely during the last two weeks before the procedure. My guess is that they will celebrate a bit, but not too much.

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Hello, Dan.

I recently retired, and since many of my friends were from my workplace, I feel lonely and deprived of connections. Any advice?

—Warren 

It’s a bit awkward to advertise “friends needed,” and if you tried, you could attract some shady characters. Instead, I’d suggest that you pick an activity that is likely to attract the kind of people you want to be friends with: the Sierra Club, or bird watching, or maybe pickleball. Odds are that you will find your next friends there. And don’t worry if you don’t like the activities very much: The other people are probably there for the same reason—to make friends.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Missing Morality, Caring Critiques, and Remodeling Resources

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Within moments, I heard an announcement from the information desk calling me to pick it up. Relief! But once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral?

—Jessie 

The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, such as returning someone’s wallet, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image: We just proved to ourselves that we are good people. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly?

Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified taking your cash.

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Dear Dan,

A thought occurred to me during recent coverage of the rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave. It seemed that no expense was spared in bringing out the 12 boys and their coach alive. The same urgency in saving lives, regardless of the cost, occurred during the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010.

But there are plenty of ways that, for a fraction of the cost, we as a society could save and improve the lives of far more people—for example, by spending more on public health measures. I’m not criticizing the rescue of the soccer players or miners—both incidents were causes for celebration, examples of the triumph of human ingenuity and endurance against the forces of nature. But what makes us care so much about these episodes and so little about other issues?

—Stanley 

You are correct in your observation. We’re much more motivated to take drastic measures to help others when we see suffering on a specific human face, rather than in abstract numbers. This is what’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.” Think of moments when people have been galvanized around major issues. They often come right after a vivid story about a particular person or a harrowing image made the news.

Consider, for example, the recent stories about immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, which has made the issue of immigration more urgent across the political spectrum. Most of us were aware of immigration problems before, but when the harm became more individual and visible, it seemed intolerable. We should be aware of this effect and, as you say, shouldn’t necessarily let it dictate where we focus our effort and resources.

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Dear Dan,

I recently decided to remodel my bathroom myself instead of hiring a contractor to do it, which would have cost $65,000. I did it myself for $25,000 in materials and some hired help. It took up my weekends for nine months, time that I otherwise would have spent in advancing my career. I enjoy the hands-on work, but would I have been better off focusing on my job and trying to earn more money? Was the bathroom worth it?

—Will 

While it’s certainly more time-efficient to hire a contractor, and you could have used the time to further your career, it sounds like you got a lot of satisfaction out of remodeling the bathroom yourself. Several colleagues and I conducted research a few year ago on what we called the “Ikea effect.” It turns out that when we assemble something ourselves, we end up taking a lot of pride in it, and for a long time. So I wouldn’t just think about money and time. Think also about the pleasure of inviting friends to your home, showing them your bathroom and taking pride in your craftsmanship.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Exercise Equations, Pricy Pals, and Happier Holidays

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m currently in physical therapy for a knee injury, but I haven’t been improving much lately. The main reason is that I’ve been slacking off with my exercises at home, which my physical therapist says are crucial for the treatment to be effective. I know I could be recovering much faster if I actually followed through with my exercises, but doing them is just miserable. What can I do?

—Jordan 

Because physical therapy is often tedious and uncomfortable, the mood to do your exercises will probably not strike you very frequently, if at all. What I would do is add something to the exercises that changes your motivation equation. For example, you could make a rule that your whole family can only watch their favorite TV show after you’ve completed your exercises. This way, the pressure of not wanting to disappoint everyone in your family will add to your motivation; and if you slack off, your family will nag you to get your exercises done. This approach can be thought of as “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”–in this case, doing your physical therapy in order to watch TV and not annoy your family. It is a great way to engineer our motivation to get us to do things that are no fun in themselves.

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Hi Dan,

Recently, I retired on a small income. I have an old friend who visits regularly, and who is very well off. She often stays with me for a week or more, but rarely offers to cover any of the expenses connected with her visit, such as food or gas. She doesn’t take me out to dinner and seldom brings a gift. To make things worse, when we go shopping together she buys expensive things for herself, making the income difference between us even more obvious and painful.

I can get over the difference in wealth, but it is hard for me not to care that she doesn’t help out with expenses. How can I suggest that she chip in and still keep her as a good friend?

—Francis 

Since your friend is used to a pattern where you are paying for everything, she probably no longer thinks much about it. In general, we are all very good at taking things for granted. To break this pattern, I would sit with her over a glass of wine and tell her that while you love her visits, since you retired you feel a bit financially stressed. Tell her that you don’t want her to visit less often, but that you would like to alternate who pays for groceries and for going out.

I suggest alternating rather than splitting the bills because splitting requires an ongoing accounting, which is uncomfortable and can put an extra strain on the relationship. With this kind of an arrangement, the expenses won’t necessarily be divided equally, but it will help you avoid awkwardness during each and every transaction. My guess is that your friend will be delighted to share in the expenses, and you’ll wonder why you felt it was so difficult to bring this topic up in the first place.

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Dear Dan,

Summer is here and I am wondering: what is the secret to a good vacation?

—Moran 

The first secret is not to call it a vacation. To vacate a place is to leave it, but the point of taking time off is not just to leave our lives behind. It is to approach something new and different. That’s why I think the British have it right: they call this time a holiday, which is a much more fitting name for an exciting experience. And since the words we use matter to how we think and act, my advice is: plan to have a holiday!

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.