Here’s a common pandemic question: What should I watch tonight? Simple enough, right? We live in the greatest society ever for evening entertainment. If you are relatively laid back, you might turn on the TV and choose whatever comes on first. If, however, you’re looking for the “best” thing to watch, the decision might be more complicated. Like many Americans, you might first check your 300+ cable channels. Maybe there’s something good on Netflix! Didn’t that new series start on Disney+? What about TV sitcom reruns on Hulu? Of course, there’s always on-demand, where we can choose to rent (or buy!) thousands of different shows. When my wife and I go through this decision-making process, we often find that by the time we choose, (if we get that far) we’re too aggravated to watch and it’s too late anyway! We’ve just experienced what Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice.1 We expect that having many choices will make us happier, but instead discover that a cornucopia of choice may actually reduce our happiness.
As people living in modern Western societies, we tend to think that some of our happiness and well-being derives from the ability to choose. And we’re not wrong. Having and making choices provides us with a sense of autonomy or freedom. It gives us the ability to “do what I want to do.” Choices provide a sense of self-determination, of shaping our own lives and futures, being able to “be who I want to be.” It seems obvious, therefore, that more choices will result in more happiness, more autonomy, and a greater sense of self. How could it be otherwise?
If the paradox only applied to movies, it might not be so bad. However, consider the breathtaking abundance of options available to many of us in many areas of our lives, small and large. A recent trip to my local supermarket revealed a choice of over 50 deodorants—in the “all-natural” section alone. Want to buy a car? There are 250 new models to choose from2 (… or should you consider a used model in which case there are more?). Want to insure the car? There are 6000 companies that will do it3. Where you live and work; who, when, and how you marry; all of these, and more, present us with critical decisions to make, and each comes with vast numbers of choices. (And I haven’t even mentioned the Internet! One study showed that the more search engine hits users have to choose from, the less confident and satisfied they were with their own problem-solving. Uh-oh.).4
Research conducted by Barry Schwartz and others has demonstrated that there is one type of person for whom this plethora of choices presents the greatest potential trouble: the person who has to have the best. The maximizer.5 The friend who spends endless time searching website upon website to get the best seats for the concert; the colleague who must find the best preschool for their toddler; the college grad who needs to land the best possible job. Well, what’s wrong with that? I don’t want a “pretty good” seat at the concert, a “good enough education” for my child, or an “ok” job, do I?
The process of choosing the best, however, has its costs. The maximizer spends more time decision-making (Is this how I want to spend my time?); with more uncertainty and anxiety (Is this the best? Is this the best? Is this the best?); and with greater risk of regret (Did I really get the best? Will a better choice come along soon? Did my neighbor/friend/relative make a better choice?). There’s even the possibility of choice overload creating complete paralysis—when you can’t even make a decision (like when my wife and I choose a movie). The maximizer may get a better result, but it often comes at the cost of less happiness before, during, and after the decision.
The alternative? Satisficing. A satisficer is a person who has a high but “good enough” standard. In contrast with the maximizer, the satisficer reaches a decision point and stops the search. Decision made. It’s not that the satisficer accepts whatever comes along or doesn’t care about the choices. This person sets appropriate standards for satisfaction and seeks solutions until those standards are met. For example, I want to watch a movie with my wife and know that we would like a romantic comedy, under two-hours long, with a four-star rating by viewers. We turn on the TV, start looking, and when we’ve found such a movie, we watch it—no need to check the other channels and services for something better. Instead, we make popcorn! Fortunately, we are not entirely maximizers or satisficers. Our decision-making strategy varies according to our needs and values—perhaps satisficer for movies but maximizer for books; satisficer for cars but maximizer for medicine; satisficer for job but maximizer for travel.
So, my wife and I, satisficers both, have quickly chosen a movie, not regretted our choice, and are able to enjoy watching it with clear minds, open hearts, and popcorn. We’re fortunate. It is incredibly important to recognize that there are many, many people in the world whose ability to choose is severely limited, but not by choice. There are those who live in countries that do not allow them to choose. There are those whose lack of money curtails many of the fundamental choices in their lives. There are those who, through no fault of their own, have medical, mental, or emotional conditions that preclude many choices. So, as some of us consider the challenges we face when confronted with too many choices, we must remember the challenges of those with too few.
What can you do to help increase your happiness when faced with an onslaught of choices? Here are a few strategies for making decisions more manageable.5
- Decide which decisions deserve more time and which deserve less. Consider past decisions: which ones merited the time and effort? Which ones could have been made with a smaller investment of resources? Decide how you’re going to decide.
- Know what you want before making a decision. Plan ahead and know what you want. If you’ve thought about which wine you really want (a domestic, pinot noir, with hints of oak) you’ll spend less time roaming the aisles.
- When it makes sense, take advantage of a trusted authority. When you need a room air conditioner, it may be completely satisfactory to consult a single consumer review and choose from the top-rated models. No need to seek out every website with a review (Google told me that there were 45,000,000 of these).
- Use routines. If you go jogging every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:00 AM, it’s what you do. Once established, there’s little decision-making energy spent.
- Have an “attitude of gratitude.” Research has shown that focusing your attention on the positive aspects of your life can increase your happiness.6 So, what aspects of your choices look good, feel good, make sense, have worked for you? Keep these in mind after you’ve made a decision.
- Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice—Why More is Less. (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
- I. Wagner., Number of new car models offered – U.S. market 2020 – 2021, Statista, published July 9, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/200092/total-number-of-car-models-on-the-us-market-since-1990/
- Grace Kim, List of car insurance companies, Bankrate, published January 27, 2021. https://www.bankrate.com/insurance/car/carriers/
- Antti Oulasvirta, Janne Hukkinen, and Barry Schwartz, “When more is less: The paradox of choice in search engine use,” SIGIR ’09: Proceedings of the 32nd international ACM SIGIR conference on Research and development in information retrieval, July 2009, Pages 516–523 https://doi.org/10.1145/1571941.1572030
- Schwartz, “Paradox.”
- Robert Emmons, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).