How to Make Better Choices

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

In a world of seemingly limitless options – which career to pursue, who to marry, what car to buy – modern society believes that exercising our freedom to choose will inevitable lead to the greatest amount of happiness and satisfaction.

Although the argument makes sense, logically (having more options should makes us more likely to chose exactly what we want, right?), scientific studies prove that this simply isn’t true. In fact, increases in choice options for both individuals and societies can lead to higher levels of clinical depression (and even suicide), as an increase in choices also lead to higher expectations and a feeling of increased responsibility for one’s own happiness and satisfaction.

In theory, objectively, there is always one ‘best’ choice in any situation, and with enough time and energy spent searching, it can be found. This approach is called maximizing, and although the name implies optimal effect, the approach comes at a great cost.

When we maximize, the time, effort and stress utilized in finding the ‘best’ option actually detracts from our enjoyment of it. The subjective satisfaction becomes less and less, even though, objectively, we have made the right choice.

The ability to set a minimum standard, and settle for the first ‘good enough’ option, is an approach described as ‘satisficing’. This approach is actually the best way to truly ‘maximize’ making choices, once all the saved time, worrying and stress is taken into account.

Thus, a ‘Satisficer’ is much more likely to be content with his or her decision than is a ‘Maximizer’.

In a world of ever-increasing freedoms, people actually benefit tremendously from setting personal limitations on our freedom of choices. For example, when choosing a car to buy, people who determine their minimum standards (ie. the car has wheels, fits 5 people comfortably, has seat-belts and airbags, etc.) and the proceed to shop for prices at a maximum of two dealerships, are much happier with their purchase than people who take much longer to ‘shop around’.

The author describes the predicament perfectly succinct in two sentences: “Choice within constraint. Freedom within limits.”

Proof that this limitation can increase happiness can be found in a) the Amish, whose lifestyle choices are constricted by their religious and communal obligations, and in b) people who’s marriages have been arranged, thereby limiting their personal choice in selecting a life partner. These people do not suffer because of the limitations, as they are expected and intrinsic to their culture. Instead of worrying, they devote their energies to improving the quality and enjoyment of their situation.

The author lists 9 steps to put these theories into practice:

  1. Chose when to chose. Automize mundane decisions to allow mental capacity to make choices about things that truly matter.
  2. Be a chooser, not a picker. Be mindful of your goals and chose deliberately, instead of picking from the endless possible choices in the world.
  3. Satisfice more, maximize less. Make a ‘good enough’ choice and then move on.
  4. Think of the opportunity cost of opportunity cost. Whenever you compare two options, the perceived opportunity costs of the possible other options will accumulate, thereby making your final choice less and less enjoyable the longer you deliberate.
  5. Make non-reversible choices. Studies show that people given an option to back out are far less satisfied with their choices.
  6. Have an attitude for gratitude. Because of people’s Hedonic Thermometer, everything that excites us will soon become a comfort that we take for granted. To minimize this effect, take time each day to write down things (big and small) that you are thankful for. This act can make mundane days seem rich. As a possible extra, write down things that you are thankful are not. Examples of this negative counter-factual imagination include things like ‘I’m thankful to be born in a peaceful country’ or ‘I’m thankful my immediate family is in good health.”
  7. Regret less. To do this, focus on the positive aspects and be grateful (see step #6).
  8. Anticipate adaptation. Recognize the Hedonic Thermometer and be aware that soon after making your choice, your happiness level will return to your set base point.
  9. Control expectations. Knowing all these steps can help you in setting realistic expectations for your choices.

In conclusion, the world is full of opportunities. In order for us to thrive, sometimes it’s best to operate within a confined space. Find out what your values are and chose to obtain them.

Just remember, “Choice within constraint. Freedom within limits.”

2 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post Thor. The ideas discussed here are ones I have been wrestling with myself for a while now. I look forward to exploring deeper and will be picking up a copy of The Paradox of Choice. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Curtis! I’m really glad you enjoyed it! You may be the very first person I’ve actually helped using this medium and that makes this a huge milestone! Thank you so much for your comment! Cheers!

Comments are closed.