When to Choose Is to Lose

In a world of plenty, wanting the best can lead us to unhappiness—how to boost your happiness by restricting your choices.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on September 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You're among the first generation in history to decide not only where to live and what profession to enter (fundamental choices that now feel like a birthright) but whether to shell out for a 32, 42, or 52 inch flat-screen, LCD or LED.

From breakfast cereal to birth control, we are assailed with options at every moment in our day—choice that's often marketed as sparkling necessity. Our big decisions are also subject to spin: Colleges vie for applicants; doctors are poised to help us choose not just the time of conception but the profile and pedigree of our progeny. Entire industries—travel agents, interior decorators, portfolio managers—are devoted to the navigation of a selection-saturated world.

Our ancestors would be overwhelmed by this orgy of options. Our brains still are. That's because we evolved in a world where choice was limited by chronic shortages of food, absence of transportation other than one's own two feet, and few reliable sources of information. In a world without menus, speed dating, or iPods, either you ate, found a mate, and enjoyed a snatch of music, or you went without. Often, the choice was between something and nothing. In such a world, our ancestors could afford to simplify decision-making to "Always get the best."

Striving to maximize each opportunity makes sense when your choices are obvious and few. We carry the instinct to maximize and hoard in a world where we no longer need to do either—and it drives us batty. Our minds evolved in an environment of scarcity; today, by contrast, we are overwhelmed by having to cope with plenty. Just try going into a Banana Republic and buying an item in two minutes.

The Anxiety of Excess

Choices often occasion anxiety because we compare what we have with what we could and should have. Our ancestors could not become alarmed over what they could not envision having in the first place, just as most people today don't covet private jets or deeded islands because they're so far outside a normal frame of reference.

When scarcity circumscribed choice, there was no reason to blame yourself for a poor outcome. But if you choose poorly today, you feel you have no one but yourself to blame, because the decision was yours alone. Such circumstances generate pressure to make the right choice. There's no second-guessing the only available shelter for miles around. But once you've viewed 25 properties at the same price point in your desired neighborhood, it's tough to feel you've spent your money wisely.

Even a great choice—that 10-day Hawaiian vacation—can pale in comparison to the excursions untaken. In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College argues that the availability of too many options leaves us inherently unsatisfied, no matter what decision we make and how fortuitous its outcome. We focus on the unrealized possibilities, simply because we can. Unlike our ancestors, we have the time and energy to ruminate about our options. We expend a lot of cerebral capital wondering whether we made the right decision. When the merits of a decision are not immediately obvious, the result is worry and paralysis—buyer's remorse.

Choice and Happiness

We know that today, most choices are frivolous and rarely jeopardize our existence, though this fact doesn't stop us from fretting. And we overestimate the importance of big choices all the more. Isn't the ability to select a doctor, partner, or profession critical to our quality of life? We tell ourselves that when it comes to big decisions, we must make the right one, or the fallout will be enormous.

We're equipped with amazing cognitive abilities, but the capacity to foresee how we'll really feel about a decision is not one of them. We evolved to survive and reproduce, not to experience what Alexander Herzen called "the summer lightning of personal happiness"—much less to predict what will deliver it unto us.

That's why it's critical to avoid thinking we can tailor a fulfilling life from a smorgasbord of options. Limiting choice doesn't just curb anxiety, it actually creates happiness, argues Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. When you accept limitation or make a commitment you feel fulfilled, finds the author of Stumbling on Happiness. This could be because people are more likely to completely accept the circumstances when options are few.

If you're casually dating and playing the field, you're more likely to keenly (and critically) scrutinize a potential partner's every move. The act of consciously committing and binding yourself to a relationship solves an emotional puzzle, and an existential one. You earn freedom through decisiveness.

Still, we cling to the notion that endless options will make us happier, though they rarely do. This is because for most of human history, choice was a marker of abundance—today it's equally likely to be a sign of excess, as anyone who's done online shopping can attest.

The need to hoard is inscribed in our appetites as well as in our minds: Our bodies understand abundance, but not excess, which leads to overeating and the inability to control food cravings. We crave sweets because for most of human history we didn't know when we'd get the next chance to stock up.

Satisficing, Not Maximizing

In an evolutionarily novel environment like that of modern Western societies, we may be best off taking a satisficing approach to decision making—aiming for good enough rather than the best. That means consciously renouncing perfectionism and letting go of regrets.

Choice can be great if we refuse to obsess about all the alternatives. The problem is finding a way to handle the psychological mechanism—the urge to maximize—that worked well throughout the millennia when choices were scarce. We can outsmart ourselves by taking a risky action: limiting our own options and then refusing to make a federal case about the final outcome. In spite of our evolved emotional makeup, options can be our allies. Case in point: Not agonizing about a choice is a choice in itself. --Nando Pelusi

How to Make Options Your Allies

You can outfox your evolved emotional makeup.

  • God is not in the details: Practice making decisions quickly about small things and routine purchases. Limit the time you spend comparing specs. Build confidence in your "gut" by attending to it.
  • Don't dwell: Refuse to spend too much time regretting a decision or blaming yourself for a poor outcome. Instead learn from your mistakes and determine to do better.
  • Keep your expectations realistic: Needing it all is guaranteed to make you unhappy.
  • Risk a wrong decision: Fight emotional paralysis by seeing that even making the "wrong" choice is often better than making no choice at all; you still learn through trial and error. It is better to blunder your way through life than to avoid making decisions.
  • Don't look back: Engineer your decisions so that they are binding and irreversible: Force yourself to buy final sale items or draw up a contract with family or friends stating that you will not reverse course on a larger decision.