Trying to find happiness in a world so busy and complicated can seem impossible.
What’s weird is that in so many ways our lives are objectively better than our grandparents’ lives were. We have more… yet we often feel worse. Don’t you wonder if life was happier when it was simpler? I do.
Who has the explanation for this? And more importantly, who has answers on how to fix it? I don’t. But I know someone who does.
So I gave Barry Schwartz a call. He’s a professor at Swarthmore College and the author of the bestseller, The Paradox of Choice.
Barry’s work explains why more choice can actually make us miserable and what we can do to simplify our lives and become happier. His fantastic TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 7 million times.
Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below:
- Why a world of so many choices can make us unhappy.
- Why always wanting the best can be a path to clinical depression.
- How gratitude and relationships can be the key to fixing these dilemmas.
- The one sentence you need to remember to start on a path to a simpler, happier life.
Less really is more. Here’s why.
The Paradox of Choice
Economics tells us that more choice is better. And for most of human existence that has been true.
But research is showing that more choice is not always better. Overflowing email inboxes, 500 television channels and 175 different kinds of salad dressing at the grocery store don’t make life drastically better — it’s paralyzing. Here’s Barry:
The standard way of thinking about this is that more choice will help some people and hurt no one. But it turns out that when people have too many options, instead of being liberated by all these choices, they’re paralyzed. They can’t choose at all. And if they overcome paralysis, they make worse decisions.
What happens when your employer gives you more choices for your 401K? I’ll tell you what: for every 10 options given the likelihood that you pick any of them goes down by 2%.
And if your employer matches your contribution, not picking can mean giving up as much as $5000. More choices can make people poorer. Here’s Barry:
How does the number of 401K choices people have influence the likelihood that they’ll participate? What Sheena Iyengar found is that the more options people had, the less likely they were to choose any. Employers were thinking they were doing their employees a favor by throwing options at them. In fact, what they were doing is decreasing the chances that they would choose at all. Often, by not choosing one, people were passing up significant matching money from the employer. It’s like taking a match and lighting it to a $5,000 bill but that’s what people were doing.
More options in the dating market should mean you’re more likely to meet the perfect person, right? Wrong.
In a study of speed dating people were more likely to find a match when they had only 6 choices instead of 12. Here’s Barry:
It would seem like you’d make more matches when you saw 12 people than when you saw 6 but what they found is the reverse. There were more matches made when people saw 6 people than when they saw 12 people.
New York has more single people than any city but research shows this makes it harder to find a spouse there.
And the scary thing is that choice doesn’t just paralyze us — it also makes us unhappy. Seeing more options makes you more likely to second guess yourself and experience regret. Here’s Barry:
Even if you manage to overcome paralysis and choose well, you end up less satisfied because it’s so easy to imagine that one of the options you rejected would have been better than the option that you chose. That’s what the research has shown. It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t happen with all people but it happens at least some of the time with most people.
(For new Harvard research on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, fancy studies on 401k’s and dating are nice but maybe that doesn’t seem relevant to you day to day. The problem goes deeper than that. A lot deeper.
How Choices Are Making Your Life Unhappy
Work-life balance is a huge issue these days. But it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why. Our lives are far more flexible. Shouldn’t that promote happiness?
But years ago, when you left work, you were done. Now with technology, we can work anywhere at any time. Every minute you spend with friends or playing with your kids is a minute you could be working.
So you need to decide. That decision didn’t exist in the past. But having it in the back of your head all the time is enormously stressful. Here’s Barry:
These days, when you come home, your work comes with you. In fact, no matter where you go, your work comes with you. You’re at a ballgame, your work is in your pocket, right? What that means is not necessarily you want to work all the time but you have to make a decision not to work. There’s no constraint. “Should I play with my kid or should I answer these emails?” That was not an issue 30 years ago. You’re home; of course you play with your kid. No decision. Now, there’s a decision to be made.
Do you feel like you’re procrastinating more? You probably are. It’s not because we’ve all gotten lazier. More decisions at every turn makes it harder to choose. And so we put things off because it’s just too much.
The proliferation of choices is even giving you an identity crisis. In the modern era we have more freedom to be who we want to be. And in many ways that’s great. But it also means more decisions.
When there weren’t many choices, what you picked didn’t say much about you. But now everything, including the clothes you wear, can and does say something about you. So it has stakes attached. And that’s stressful too. Here’s Barry:
If all there is is Levi’s, then what jeans you wear doesn’t tell the world about who you are. But suppose there are a thousand different kinds of jeans… now what you wear is a statement about who you are because there’s so much more opportunity for you to shape your image to the world. The result of this, I believe, is that it makes even relatively trivial consumer decisions more high stakes because when you buy jeans, you’re not just covering your body, you are also making a statement to the world about who you are.
And all these high stakes decisions at every turn are making us unhappy. Yes, we’re richer. Yes, we have more options. And depression is exploding in the developed world.
…the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by perhaps a factor of ten from 1900 to 2000.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
What underlies all this? We love choices but they can make us miserable. If we understand the psychology better can we address the problem? Yes.
“It’s All Your Fault.”
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry discusses a number of reasons why so many choices can hurt well-being but let’s focus on one here:
“It’s all your fault.”
When the world doesn’t give you much choice and things don’t work out the way you want, it’s the world’s fault. What else could you have done?
But when you have 100 options and you don’t choose well the burden shifts because you could have picked better. If you’re unhappy with your choice now it’syour fault. And whether you’re cognizant of it or not, that can make you sad. Here’s Barry:
It’s very hard to blame the world when you make decisions in an environment in which there are essentially unlimited options. It’s easier to blame the world when you make bad choices in a world where there are limited options. Blaming yourself for bad results is one of the hallmarks of clinical depression. If your life sucks, you’re sad. If your life sucks and it’s your fault, you’re clinically depressed. The environment we operate in just makes it impossible for people not to blame themselves for anything that doesn’t work out as well as they hoped it would.
Who suffers the most in a world of so much choice? Ironically, it’s the people who strive to get the best.
“Satisficers” (those who settle for “good enough”) are happier. “Maximizers” (people who explore every option to make the best decision) end up doing better — but feeling worse.
Students who were maximizers in trying to get the best job after graduation ended up better off — they got salaries that were 20% higher. But they ended up more unhappy with their jobs than satisficers did. Here’s Barry:
We found that people who are satisficers are generally more optimistic, happier, and less regretful than people who are maximizers. We did a study of college seniors looking for jobs and found that maximizers got better jobs but felt worse about the jobs they got than satisficers did. People who score as maximizers score as borderline clinically depressed.
We’re constantly told to never settle. But in a world of limitless choice, that presents a nearly insurmountable hurdle to being happy.
(For more on how Navy SEALs, astronauts and samurai make great decisions under pressure, click here.)
So more choices can make us miserable. But is there anything we can do about it? Yes, there is.
3 Things That Will Make You Happier
Barry offers a number of solutions in his book. Here are three to get you started:
1) Keep an “attitude of gratitude”
There’s tons of research on the power of gratitude to make us happier.
We have a natural tendency to see the negative. But by making an effort to note the good things that happen in life we can fight the regret that so many choices often creates. Here’s Barry:
We tend to focus much more on the aspects of decisions that disappoint us than on the aspects of decisions that satisfy us. The idea behind the attitude of gratitude is, and there’s a little empirical evidence to support this, that you can actually cultivate an attitude toward your decisions and your experiences that counteracts this negativity bias. You can get into the habit of identifying what’s good in the mundane everyday experiences that you have. I think it’s like a muscle that you need to build up with exercise. You practice by forcing yourself to focus on the positive aspects of your experiences and over time, this becomes more and more automatic, the muscle gets stronger and the negativity bias is overcome.
(The best way to build that attitude of gratitude is here.)
2) Be a satisficer — with maximizer friends
In some areas, being a “maximizer” and not settling for less can certainly be valuable. But most decisions are in trivial areas, and the downside of choosing wrong isn’t worth feeling overwhelmed and making yourself unhappy.
So be a “satisficer” and choose the “pretty good” option quickly. I can already hear some people complaining: “But then I’ll miss out! I won’t get the best.” But there’s a way to have both.
Be a satisficer and rely on your maximizer friends to choose for you. Here’s Barry:
Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision. You need a place to eat in a city that you’re visiting, so call another friend who’s been to that city. Just go to the restaurant he tells you to go to. I don’t think you can delegate all of the decisions in life in this way but you can certainly delegate a hell of a lot of them. What’s best for your friend won’t be best for you but chances are it will be good enough for you. I think this is a great way to reduce the clutter and the paralysis that afflicts people. Just ask for advice and follow it.
3) Be a chooser, not a picker
Picking from 100 options is a nightmare. So don’t look at all the options. First, ask what’s important to you. Then choose the first one you see that has all those elements. Here’s Barry:
A better thing to do is just sit down and ask yourself what do I care about in a car and then, having articulated that, you go and buy the first car you see that satisfies your standards with respect to the things you care about.
You need constraints. Limitations. We think we always want freedom but that’s just not true.
What does the research say makes us happier than anything else? Strong relationships.
But relationships constrain us. You don’t move to another city because your spouse doesn’t want to go there. You don’t take that fancy job because the hours would mean you wouldn’t have time to see your friends or your kids.
Barry says what we often fail to realize is that those constraints are welcome. They make decisions easier. They make life simpler. They make it “not your fault.” And so they make us happier.
(To learn a shortcut to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)
We need to satisfice more and maximize less. So what’s one sentence you can keep in mind to simplify your life and remind you of how to find happiness in a world of overwhelming choice?
The Most Important Thing To Remember
“Good enough is almost always good enough.”
The single most important piece of advice I can give is: Remember that good enough is almost always good enough. If people go through life looking for good enough results, the choice problem will take care of itself. Go through your day getting a good enough cup of coffee and a good enough toasted bagel and so on and so on and life will look much sunnier.
You’ll be happier if you stop trying to make all your choices perfect and you just focus on what’s really important.
That’s good enough.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email firstname.lastname@example.org.