I Can’t Decide! Why An Increase in Choices Decreases Our Happiness


Remember the days when choices were modest? Decaf. Neat. Thanks.

Now, it’s a half-decaf, double, venti, three-pump white mocha syrup, three-pump sugar-free vanilla, half-soy, half-nonfat, 180-degree, light-whip, no-foam latte; with a sprinkle — but only a sprinkle — of chocolate powder on top. Please.

As a nation of consumers built on a foundation of freedom, it’s not just that we prefer options to choose from, we expect them. With this, 87,000 drink combinations you can order at Starbucks. Cox cable offers over 1,000 cable channels. iPhone apps: 2.2 million. Stocks on the NYSE: 3,000. Number of dating sites in the U.S. alone: 1,500. As Burger King promises, “You can have it your way, there’s nothin’ to it.”

Except that there is.

Generally, the ability to choose is a good thing. It enables us to be the driver of our own destiny, fill our need for self-determination and express who we are to the world. Logic would assume that the more choices we have, the better the options, resulting in a greater satisfaction by getting exactly what we want; a secret to happiness. But as our options have continued to increase, our everyday decisions have become more complex and overwhelming — from decision life-changers of buying a home, choosing a career, a health plan, and a partner, to the mundane choices of deciding which of the 87 shades of white to paint the bedroom.

Could an increase in choices be decreasing our happiness? Science seems to think so. Through various behavioral studies, researchers have confirmed that being awash with choice is harmful to our psychological, biological, and emotional well-being. It’s a source of regret, depression, and anxiety over missed opportunities, and it plants unrealistically high expectations within us. Additionally, researchers looking at images of brain activity during decision-making processes found that constantly making decisions will not only deplete our mental energy but also reduce our willpower and efficiency in making subsequent decisions. So the question begs, at what point does choice go from being accommodating and liberating to intimidating and debilitating?

Enter Barry Schwartz, psychology professor at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” Schwartz asserts that having increased options benefits people to a certain point, but as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects begin to appear. As the number of choices grows even further, we become less satisfied with the options we’re given, and the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. It’s at this point that our freedoms have paralyzed us. We end up making poor decisions; we’re more likely to be dissatisfied with the decisions we do make, or we become overwhelmed and make no decision at all.

Schwartz also suggests that people fall into two categories of decision-makers — the “satisficer” or the “maximizer” — and our reaction to choices relies on which type we identify with. Satisficers will look at their options and settle for something they consider good enough. For them, choices are less significant, and they don’t spend time agonizing over the possibility that there might be something better. As soon as an item meets a satisficer’s standards, the search is over, and other options become irrelevant. Maximizers function differently. They set out to choose the absolute best, and won’t stop searching until they find it. They compare all options, imagine all the other possibilities — even ones that aren’t present — and will attempt to try everything until they’ve found the perfect fit. What’s more, even once they’ve chosen the best option, they will continue to look for more, because now they might be able to find something even better than the best. So it’s no wonder that a maximizer usually suffers from anxiety when faced with a myriad of options, or that they are generally less happy with their decisions and more susceptible to regret. How could they not be, when thinking there’s always something out there that will bring more happiness?

But here’s the catch: Human beings are fairly hopeless at predicting what will make us happy, or how long that happiness will last. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” asserts that the greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine and think about the future. However, we’re such strangers to ourselves that we overestimate how things will affect us in the future, while rarely underestimating them. This discrepancy, known as the impact bias, causes us a great deal of “miswanting.” We will save for the lavish new BMW which of course will bring happiness, only to find ourselves drained by the monthly payments and maintenance costs.

As it turns out, the results of our choices aren’t nearly as life-changing as we predict they’ll be. When we imagine the future, we tend to exert tunnel vision around a certain decision or outcome, but we fail to consider other events or factors that may be happening in our lives that would reduce the impact of that decision. Simultaneously, science reports that our genetics and background set a baseline level of happiness for us. Accordingly, whether we make a decision that causes discontent or one that brings pleasure, we generally level back out to the happiness level we were at before.

Perhaps we struggle with deciding between choices because there isn’t a “You Are Here” decision-center of the brain. Instead, decisions are products of complex functions. In an experiment using positron emission tomography (PET), psychologist Kip Smith of Kansas State University looked at the brains of participants undergoing decision-making from various presented choices. Through the neuroimage results, Smith was able to conclude that the brain analyzes choices from a variety of angles and that a decision encompasses multiple brain regions fighting to be heard.

So with competing parts in the brain, how do you know which one to listen to?

Well, we like to believe that we’re fairly rational, level-headed, and capable of making clear-minded and logical decisions. Science disagrees. Research suggests that our brains may not have been programmed for rational decision-making as much as we assume; instead, we predominantly rely on our emotional brain and relative amounts of pleasure and pain to guide us.

Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found that during many decision-making processes, the prefrontal cortex—the rational part of the brain, in charge of reasoning, judgment, and executive decisions — sits quietly while the conflicting nucleus accumbens fights to overrule our judgment. This part of the brain, which plays a lead role in emotions, pleasure, addiction, and fear, will try to dictate what choice we decide upon based on whichever emotion is dominating.

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