The Secrets of Wellbeing Series - Part 4: Does More Choice Make us Happier? - Goodlife Zen

The Secrets of Wellbeing Series – Part 4: Does More Choice Make us Happier?

Does more choice make us happier?
This is the question that drives Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College.

For example, yesterday I went to the supermarket to get some olive oil. There wasn’t just one brand. There were many different options: cold pressed, virgin, light, from Italy, from Greece, from New Zealand. In fact, there were over 30 different options for me to choose from. And the same goes for everything we encounter, from jobs to detergents: we’re faced with endless options.

So, does more choice make us happier?

Of course this is a question that only applies to our affluent, Western society. Because in poor countries, people have few options.

As Schwartz points out, an official dogma in our Western society proclaims: The more individual freedom someone has, the happier he or she will be.

Here are some problems that come with abundant choice.

  • Choice make for preoccupation.

I am sure you too know about that: ‘Shall I stay or go?’, ‘Shall I quit this job for that one?’, ‘Shall I have an operation or not?’, ‘Shall I choose this person to be my life partner or that one?’ The list is endless. If we were to add up all the minutes and hours that we spend preoccupied with choices – I think it would add up to a large slice of our life.

  • Too much choice equals paralysis.

We know this phenomenon as dithering! Actually, there is some interesting data here. A researcher investigated how people choose one of the many voluntary retirement funds that are on offer for employees in the USA. She found that for every 5 more options, the participation when down by 2%. So, if an employer reduced available options down from fifty to five, their participation rate went up by 20%. That is, when faced with too much choice, people stopped choosing because they felt overwhemed.

  • More options make us dissatisfied with what we have.

Like Marty Seligman, Schwartz also makes the point that if we have more options, we end up less satisfied with the choice we have made. Why? Because if our choice doesn’t turn out to be perfect (which is won’t), then it is easy to imagine that another choice would have been better. The easier it is to choose, the easier it is to feel regret about the choice we made.

  • Choice leads to self-blame.

The effect of the escalation of expectations is that if things don’t turn out right, we tend to blame ourselves. Schwartz sees a link between the explosion of depression in the industrial Western world, and the disappointment and self-blame that comes from too many choices.

As you can see, this is a substantial list of drawbacks that come with abundant choice. According to Schwartz, some choice is better than non, but more choice is worse than some.

According to Schwartz, people fall into two groups according to how they respond to choices. He calles them ‘Maximizers’ and ‘Satisficers’.

Are you a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

Answer the following question to find out:

“When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to” – yes or no?

If you answered ‘yes’, you are a Maximizer. If you answered ‘no’, you are a satisfizer. Research shows that Maximizers Do Better, Satisficers Feel Better.

Here are recommendations by Schwartz that he offered graduate students at their leaving ceremony:

  • Don’t be a maximizer. Learn that “good enough” is good enough. You may end up with results of decisions that are slightly less good, but you’ll feel much better about them.

He qualifies this recommendation and says,

  • Choose when to choose. There are many domains in life where we can consult experts when we have to make an important decision, to take some of the burdens off your shoulders.
  • Foster loving relationships.

Close relationships impose constraints on our life. Schwartz’ point is that these constraints are not a cost; they are actually part of the benefit!

  • Follow a Calling.

A calling satisfies – and binds. People with a calling are doing something that will not lose its value, even if they are stuck doing it for the next forty years.

  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Don’t expect perfection in your work, in your love life, with your friends, with your kids.
  • Agonize less about your many decisions. You can use that time and energy instead getting to know and understand all the people in your life.

Abundant choice does not make us happier

I think it’s important to keep in perspective that there are many people living in poverty who desperately need more choices. And there are people in authoritarian regimes who need more choice. But those of us who live in one of the Western industrial nations are confronted by too much choice.

There is an interesting line in a well-known Zen poem that bears on today’s theme:

The Great Way is not difficult;
Just avoid picking and choosing.

What is your experience of happiness versus choice?


Relevant links

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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