The other day, over coffee, Nubby & I were discussing the appeal of moving to a small town. Of course, we both love New York City & Portland, but there is something delightfully chilled out about small towns. We were talking about what it was that we liked about those places: the slower pace, less pressure & more leisure time. I started to wonder if that was because there are less options in a smaller town. I looked at her & said, “Sometimes, too many choices make us unhappy & anxious. As much as we might think the opposite, we’re actually happier with less options.”
I don’t know where this idea came from, & it wasn’t something I thought a lot about before I said it. But once it had come out of my mouth, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I got back to New York, I googled, “the more choices we have, the less happy we are”, & lo & behold: someone has written about it already.
The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less is a book from 2004 by Barry Schwartz, & it spells out this very notion. It explains that companies which sell 24 different types of jam make less sales than those who only offer 6 varieties of jam: at a certain point, too many options feels suffocating & turns us off making a choice at all. In fact, growing up, my father often mentioned “analysis paralysis”, where we are presented with so many options that we are unable to make a choice, fearing that we will make the wrong one.
Our brains — already over-worked & exhausted — cannot cope with too many choices. We’re asked if we want small, medium or large; full fat, half & half, soy or almond milk; vanilla, strawberry or chocolate; skinny, bootleg, boyfriend or bellbottom. Actually, being presented with too many options stresses our brain. It gives it too many things to compare & contrast. The problem with being given a lot of choices is that we simply don’t have the time to research or investigate all of them… & then we feel like we have failed.
The crux of The Paradox of Choice is that because humans are wired to adapt, you won’t be happy with what you have forever, meaning you will always be tweaking & changing things. Schwartz has divided people into two groups: satisficers & maximisers. A satisficer is someone who chooses products or services that are “good enough”, while a maximiser is someone who is always trying to get the very best product. Interestingly, the satisficer is usually happy with their choice, while the maximiser is seldom happy, often regretting their purchase. The maximiser experiences agony when some small part of what they consider “the best” is not available, while the satisficer enjoys life more without the constant angst of decision-making.
In fact, Barry Schwartz agrees with psychologists David Myers & Robert Lane, who independently concluded that the current abundance of choice often leads to depression & feelings of loneliness & isolation.
“There are a lot of people walking around, really, really dissatisfied with their lives, unable to put their fingers on what it is that’s so troublesome. And because this notion of choice is sacrosanct in this society, that would be the last place they looked… So I come out and I say, ‘Listen! This thing that we worship, maybe it’s not an unalloyed good.'” (Barry Schwartz; source)
Well, that’s all well & good. I can accept that & understand it. But how can we apply this truth to our own lives? How can we benefit from this lesson & make ourselves happier? I have some ideas.
When you set yourself limits & guidelines, everything moves more efficiently. Just think about Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, if you give yourself a week to do something, it’ll take you a week. But if you allow yourself an hour, it will take you an hour.
If you give yourself limitations on the art you produce, your art will be better. Pick a word limit, or a time limit, or give yourself a very specific theme. Once you have boundaries, you can thrive within them.
If you’re self-employed, make a decision — a permanent decision — about the time your work-day starts & ends. Stick to it: you’ll never have to think about it again, & it will make your life easier.
If you want to maximise time with your beloved, for example, you could decide that during romantic dinners, there are no phones allowed. This is a rule that Mike & I have & it works very well for us. There is nothing more sad, to me, than looking over at a couple in a restaurant who are ignoring one another & instead, absorbed in their phones. Anyway, my feelings on this aside, the reason this works is a) we are completely present & attentive to one another, & b) we do not have to burden our brains with the choice of ‘Will I look at my phone now?’ The choice has already been made for us.
When you’re faced with a dizzying array of options, just cut them down. Do it arbitrarily. If you’re buying a car, choose one brand or company to buy from. Honestly, this will make your life easier!
There are questions we have to ask ourselves every day which make us crazy. I once saw a hilarious tweet which said, “If I ever wrote a suicide note, it would simply say: Could not discuss what we were going to have for dinner EVER AGAIN.” There are about 100 restaurants which will deliver food to our apartment any night of the week, but we only order from about 4 of them. Whittling down our choices has made our evening routine much easier. I also don’t ask my husband what he wants for dinner anymore. Instead, I’ll give him two choices. Otherwise you get into that loop…
“What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t know. What do you want?”
…& that is the worst loop EVER!
We’ve been told that MORE IS BETTER; trained to collect things we love; convinced that owning a closet of cute shoes is a worthwhile goal for a woman. But the people who have told us this profit from passing on this message. It’s important that we understand this.
You have to ask yourself — really ask yourself — will this dress, bag or pair of shoes make my life any better? It might give you a temporary rush, but it won’t change anything else. You will still have issues with your relationships, problems with cashflow, arguments & questions about the meaning of life.
There is nothing wrong with owning things that you love. There is nothing wrong with getting a contact high from a beautiful pair of shoes or the lustre of lipstick. But we have to know when to say enough is enough.
Being presented with dozens of shoes makes it even more difficult to get dressed in the morning. I have two bookcases which serve as my “shoe library”, & you know what? As much as I like to look at my shoes, I wear the same pair of motorcycle boots almost every day. My wardrobe is stuffed to the gills with wonderful things, but it isn’t wonderful at all, because I can’t even see what’s in there.
As soon as I’ve finished writing this article, I am going to go through my closet & divide it into a few piles. I’ll keep my absolute favourite pieces, but I’m going to divide up what’s left over, split it between consignment stores, & donate the rest. I can already tell that this is going to make my life so much more simple… & make me so much happier.
Everyone has a to do list that is a mile long, but staring at a list of 50 items will just make you go cross-eyed… & more often than not, demotivate you! You won’t know where to start, & you’ll feel overwhelmed.
On Sunday night, take a couple of hours to get yourself organised for the week. Write one main goal for the week — something that might take you a few days to complete. Then, every day, refer to that goal. It will keep you on task & you’ll find that you are much more productive.
When it comes to a daily to do list, never scrawl more than 3 items on it. Otherwise, you’ll feel swamped & over-burdened. Keep it simple, baby!
In his TED Talk (below), Barry Schwartz tells a story about going to a store to buy jeans. There used to be only one kind. When he walked into the shop, after years of not having to buy a new pair of jeans, he was confronted with a million questions from the sales assistant. Bootcut? Stone-wash? Distressed? Relaxed fit? Button fly? Zipper fly?
Schwartz was understandably overwhelmed. He spent an hour trying on jeans, & when he left the store, he admits that he was wearing the best pair of jeans he’d ever owned… but he was LESS HAPPY about his choice. Why? When we’re presented with more options, we expect perfection… & of course, there is no such thing!
Don’t idealise things. Nothing is perfect. Loosen your grip on that need for everything to live up to an impossible standard, & you will be much happier!
Even though it’s natural for us to feel the need to constantly investigate new options & want to “trade up”, obsessing over the possibilities & fixating on alternatives only serves to make us unhappy. If you like something & it needs replacing, go get the same one — or one model up. If you like a particular brand of juice, or hair product, or coffee, just stick with it. Odds are that it is good enough.
Do you really need to own the perfect hand cream? Do you need the most energy-efficient fridge on the planet? Probably not. Pick your battles; learn to differentiate between what is truly important & what is superficial or insignificant.
Don’t spend forever researching everything, or in the constant quest for perfection. When we seek perfection, we miss the wonderful things that are right in front of us!
Do you feel inspired to simplify, simplify, simplify?! I do!
P.S. You can read more about this phenomenon in this interview with Barry Schwartz.