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:
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:
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:
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:
(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:
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:
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.
(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:
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’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:
(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:
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:
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.”
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.
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