in Cognitive Wisdom

Why more choices doesn’t mean more happiness


Not more than a few decades ago, choices in most areas of daily life was actually rather limited. For example, just one generation ago, all utilities were regulated by monopolies, so consumers didn’t need to make difficult decisions about who was going to provide their telephone or electric service. And even in education, we had rather narrow choices available among the courses.

But with the rapid pace of technological advancement, the array of choices in everyday life has increased enormously. We now face a demand to make choices that is unparalleled in human history.

So whether we are choosing utility provider or deciding on a career path, contemporary society presents us with a bounty of choices. In fact, it seems that no matter which aspect of everyday life we turn to, the amount of choices available to us has increased over the past decades.

For instance, not long ago the only health insurance you could choose was LIC. But now the choice of health insurance programs and providers has become incredibly complicated, and a person who fully understands what their health insurance covers is a rare breed indeed.

The increasing effect of these demanding choices, where we ourselves have the ultimate responsibility, makes it harder to choose wisely and can transform our freedom of choice into a crushing burden.

Even when choosing from just a handful of alternatives, people’s decision making is susceptible to error. This is due to the fact that our choices are partially governed by our memories, which are often biased.

As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, how we remember a past experience depends almost entirely on how the experience felt to us when it was at its best or worst, and when it ended.

If, for instance, you reminisce about a trip you took, your impression of the trip will likely be dominated by the best/worst experience – for example, fighting with your spouse – and the way the trip ended: for example, the final day’s weather.

Do you know that having more options not only make it more difficult to choose well, but it also robs us of the satisfaction we eventually get from our choice.

So, whenever we have to make decisions involving opportunity costs, we’ll feel less satisfied with our choice than we would if the alternatives were unknown to us. And the more alternatives there are, the greater our experience of the opportunity costs, and the less pleasure we’ll derive from the choice we ultimately make.

Consider this study: Two groups encountered a variety of jams at a sampling table. One group could sample only 6 different jams, and the other group, 24. The group who could sample from the larger array were much less likely to ultimately buy one of the jams than the group that were presented with just six.


Fear of missing out: As the chooser narrows her choice down to a particular jam, the various attractive features of all the jams not chosen accumulate to make the chosen jam seem less exceptional. So, the more jams, the greater the opportunity costs, and the less attractive the chosen jam will seem. This clearly proves that, increased choice reduces both our power to decide and any pleasure to be gained from what we actually choose.

As psychologist Martin Seligman has discovered, failure or lack of control leads to depression if a person explains the cause for the failure as global (“I fail in all areas of life”), chronic (“I will always be a failure”) and personal (“It seems to be only me who always fails”).

This type of excessive self-blame thrives in a world of unlimited choice. It’s much easier to blame yourself for disappointing results in such a world than in one where options are limited. This is because, given the choices, when we are allowed to be the masters of our fates, we automatically expect ourselves to be. And then, apparently, we have no one to blame but ourselves. As a result, we start blaming ourselves excessively when we fail to choose wisely.

And since excessive self-blame can lead to depression, there is good reason to believe that our society’s abundance of choice is correlated with the modern epidemic of unhappiness.

If that’s the case then how do we tackle this?

We just need to understand that choices are more demanding and less fulfilling if you’re a maximizer: someone who seeks and accepts only the best.

maximizers are especially susceptible to “buyer’s remorse.” For instance, a maximizer who succeeds in buying a great television after an extensive search will nevertheless be irked by the options that they couldn’t investigate: Fear of missing out. Their imagination of “what might have been” takes over, making the item they have chosen less attractive.

In a world of infinite choices, it is difficult and emotionally exhausting to be a maximizer, never settling for less than the best.

However, choices are less demanding and more fulfilling if you are a satisficer: someone who’s able to settle for “good enough.”

Satisficing is a fairly simple decision strategy – it means searching until you find the option that meets your standards, and stopping at that point.

And since they don’t strive for perfection when making decisions, they won’t spend time thinking about the hypothetical perfect world in which options exist that offer complete satisfaction.

Even our social relations and psychological well-being improve if we embrace certain voluntary constraints on our freedom. For instance, if you adopt the rule that you will never cheat on your partner, you can eliminate painful and tempting decisions that might confront you later on. But you need to have the discipline to live by those rules.

By working on restricting our options, we would be able to choose less and feel better.

A simple exercise to help you restrict your options so that you are able to choose less and feel better:

First, review some recent decisions you’ve made, both big and small.
Second, itemize the steps, time, research and anxiety that went into making those decision.

Third, make an overview of the costs associated with the different kinds of decisions you make that should help you in establishing future rules governing how many options to consider, or how much time and energy to invest in choosing.


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