When I was working part-time as a public servant I used to miss out on the free massage on Friday. The massage was probably a small part of a broader portfolio of health and well-being initiatives.
It was a nice idea but, of course, years later the media found out and twisted (or liberated) the story. The health and well-being benefits were overshadowed by the fact that a professional masseuse was kneading the various vertebrae of public servants.
I wonder if the back massage actually worked. Did it improve mobility and reduce workplace injuries? Probably not. But maybe it gave public servants a morale boost that subsequently improved the performance of the department. After all, perhaps just demonstrating care for our employees is enough to improve job satisfaction?
Research suggests that these appealing initiatives may only temporarily boost our mood. Over time these improvements may not only diminish but also result in a decline in mood, essentially balancing out any short-lived improvement.
This phenomena is referred to as the ‘overshoot effect’. According to opponent process theory, when we experience a spike in happiness we throw our emotions out of equilibrium. As a result, an opponent emotion, dejection, temporarily lowers our mood before it stabilises again.
Similarly, when we experience heightened anxiety, the initial distressing spike is felt followed by an opponent emotion—relaxation—that restores our mood to a steady state.
So, many of our efforts to promote a long-term improvement in well-being may be neutralised by the natural equilibrium of the brain and body. My colleagues may have enjoyed that massage but the enjoyment may have simply devolved into a mild depression before returning their malleable bodies and minds to a more normal state.