This article first appeared on Happify
Thirty years ago, I moved to Toronto from the Middle East. It was a big move—from a large family to a unit of two, from afternoon siestas to a world that never stops, from the February warmth to the frigid cold of subzero temperatures.
Despite these changes, what struck me most was the barrage of choices I faced every time I stepped out to purchase, well, anything. Buying eggs was no longer a 5-second decision. I had to choose between grass-fed, grain-fed, enriched, free-run, free-range, and vitamin-enhanced, not to mention large, medium, small, white, and brown—and this when organic had not even appeared on the market! With every choice came the added burden of decisions. Would grass-fed be better than grain-fed? What was the difference between enriched and vitamin enhanced? Goldilocks had it too easy….
Doing groceries became the most disorienting part of my day. And I’d be equally baffled wherever I went. Whether it was buying sunscreen or jeans, choosing subjects for university or planning a holiday, the choices stretched beyond my wildest imagination, consumed my time and my mind, and left me utterly drained.
But there was one more companion to the plethora of choices, and it was unhappiness. My needs had expanded to fit the choices before me, and each decision led to the dissatisfaction of all the other options left behind. I felt myself becoming more ego-centered. If only, I wish, and other regrets began to occupy my mind. And I knew that I’d lost much of the joy of a simpler life.
Over time, I learned to manage the reality of choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice helped me understand the phenomenon. Choice, he says, makes us more aware of ourselves and leads to greater autonomy. And since we all like to be the author of our lives, it also results in more happiness.
But here’s the paradox: We’re wired to choose between a few things at most. When the choice extends to the limits of human ingenuity, we become paralyzed with the decision, and unhappy about all the paths not taken.
The solution lies in finding the sweet spot, and for those of us prone to perfection and comparison (aka most of us!), this can take some training.
Rule #1: Learn to “Satisfice”
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz talks about the maximizers and the “satisficers.” The former are those of us who need to choose the best of all the options out there, while the latter look for a “good enough” option that fits with their needs. The obsession with the perfect choice that drives maximizers often leads to unhappiness because there will always be a better option in our world of abundant choices. But when we ground our search in a predetermined and intrinsic goal, we not only feel satisfied when something fits with it, we’re also more flexible and open to the potential of what we’ve found.
Rule #2: Look for the Good
Once you’ve made your decision, shift from the deliberation mindset to an appreciative one. Unless you do, you’ll be unhappy with your choice. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s study of Harvard students showed that those who were allowed to change their decision about the painting they took home were less satisfied with their choice than those whose decision was irreversible. As humans, we’re prone to the negativity bias that can lead to endless rumination. But we also have the amazing capacity to justify our decisions (which does have its downsides in some situations). But for most decisions, you can help build what Daniel Gilbert calls “synthetic happiness” by looking for the good in your decision.
Rule #3: Think About Others
Given that choice is mostly about “me” and can lead to unnecessary self-centeredness, it’s helpful to expand one’s perspective to “we” to keep balance and stay grounded. According to Jennifer Crocker, a professor of social psychology at the Ohio State University, it helps to shift from an “egosystem” to an ecosystem. How important is this decision in the larger perspective of other people? How important will it be to you in the longer perspective of a week, a month, a year from now?
I was reminded of this last week as I was shopping for mangoes. Since it’s mango season where I live, mountains of the fruit adorned tens of carts in the store—each a different variety, each smelling as sumptuous as the next. As I did the rounds of the various carts for the umpteenth time, confused out of my mind and unable to decide on the perfect pick, I noticed a beggarly man in a corner watching me. Our eyes met, and he smiled. Caught off guard, I blurted out, “Which one is the best?” His reply: “I’ve never eaten them”.
My focus shifted in an instant—from worrying over choosing the perfect mango for my family to being filled with the desire to buy a bagful for him. And my own mango tasted heavenly that night because of the thought of the beggar indulging in his.