Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are You Sure You Want That? Choices, Strategies, and Happiness...

I just finished reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (if you’re wondering when this supposedly-busy mom reads things like this, it’s at the gym, while on the bike--go figure). Schwartz teaches Psychology at Swarthmore College, and has a lot of great insights. The basic thesis of the book is that, for most people in our society today, choice is everywhere. And while choices have brought us many benefits, many of us are overwhelmed with choices an awful lot of the time. As a result of our overwhelmed-ness with choice, we have more difficulty making decisions (often feeling paralyzed when we have to choose); feel less confident and happy with the decisions we do make; and are generally less able to focus on the things that matter most to us (since we're so busy figuring out small things). He also speculates about the rates of depression in our society being related to (ironically) the amount of choice that people have. I find most of his points persuasive and compelling, and he makes some practical suggestions for breaking out of the habits that modern consumer culture tends to encourage in us.

One of the issues involved is how we approach the choices we make. Essentially, there are two types of people when it comes to choosing things: Satisficers and Maximizers (terms first coined by Herbert Simon in the 50’s). Satisficers approach purchases, etc., by looking to see if a given thing satisfies a set of criteria. Once they find something that does meet those criteria, they purchase (or decide). Maximizers, on the other hand, are always searching for "the best"-—with the inevitable problem of figuring out what that is. The more options that surface, the more possibilities (real or imagined) emerge, and the more difficult it is to choose. When maximizers do choose, the options they didn’t go for tend to stay in their minds, torturing them with imagined better-case-scenarios. Satisficers regularly report higher levels of satisfaction, and have an easier time dealing with decisions in their lives. Most people are a mix of strategies, but tend to lean more towards one strategy or the other. Schwartz suggests that the plethora of choices available to us tends to push us into habits of maximizing that are not helpful to anybody in the long run. At the end of the book, he incorporates some strategies for learning to satisfice more often, and for making easier, more happy-making decisions. He points out that it’s important for maximizers to realize that satisficing *is* maximizing, in that satisficing will make you a happier person with more time for the things, and people, you love.

The paradigms he introduces have a huge array of applications, but I kept thinking as I read the book how much it applies in my life. Funnily, I don’t have a problem satisficing when it comes to many of the big things (getting married, children, etc.) but I can become overwhelmed with choices about what to have for dinner or what shoes to buy my kids. When it comes to our children’s upbringing, too, there is an unbelievable pressure to maximize, which may explain a lot of the insanity out there. Just talking to a friend today, we discussed how the decision about whether, where, and when to send your child to pre-school can seem like a life or death decision. I suspect that we all need to take a big dose of sanity pills: we need to clarify for ourselves what the criteria that NEED to be met really are, and stop sweating the small stuff that goes into unhealthy (and crazy-making) maximizing.

1 comment:

  1. DR. RC,

    First, I would like the emphasize that humans never actually choose anything (sorry, but it's already been written).

    Second, we need not pay attention to people who complain about the number of "decisions" they must make. Every person should realize that all decisions are blessed illusions -- just enjoy the ride knowing you got the chance and the trillion other potential "yous" didn't.

    Third, I'm glad this was not posted in the wee hours.