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Is a Bird in the Hand Worth Two in the Bush?

A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, if you don't kill it.

Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 26 April 2020.]

According to the Bible, 'A living dog is better than a dead lion.' (Ecclesiastes 9:4). The earliest rendition of this proverb featuring birds instead of quadrupeds is to be found in Hugh Rhodes' Boke of Nature or School of Manners (1530), and may have been inspired by mediaeval falconry. Its current form first appears in John Ray's Hand-book of Proverbs (1670): 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.' There is a similar proverb in the Czech language: 'A sparrow in the fist is better than a pigeon on the roof.' The proverb and its variants suggest that, given the choice, the promise of less is preferable to the possibility of more.

The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, conducted on hundreds of mostly four- and five-year-old children, involved a simple binary choice: either eat this marshmallow, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given a second one. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold out for a second marshmallow went on to enjoy significantly better life outcomes, including higher test scores, better social skills, and less substance misuse.

But what if the delay is longer than 15 minutes—say, 15 or 30 years? And what if there is only the possibility, but not the guarantee, of a second marshmallow? The philosopher Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC) identified happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain: pleasure, he argued, is the highest good, and anything else that is good is only so by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time. If, for example, my blood sugars are so low that I am about to collapse, it would make a lot more sense to eat the marshmallow rather than hold out for another.

Pleasure, said Epicurus, often arises from the satisfaction of desire, and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, says Epicurus, three types of desires:

  1. natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy;
  2. natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation; and
  3. vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy.

Clearly, our avian proverb best applies to the first of the three classes of desires.

But it is also pertinent to the other two in this sense. Future-orientation detracts from the present moment, shifting our focus from what we have and can enjoy to what we lack and cannot. In many cases, future-orientation is little more than a form of fear or greed, both of which are manifestations of insecurity. Gratitude, in contrast, is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have.

Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. On a more spiritual level, gratitude promotes consciousness, enthusiasm, joy, empathy, and tranquility, while protecting from anxiety, sadness, loneliness, regret, and envy, with which it is fundamentally incompatible. All this it does because it opens us up onto a bigger and better perspective, shifting our focus from what we lack or strive for to all that we already have, to the bounty that surrounds us, and, above all, to life itself, which is the fount of all opportunity and possibility.

The complete verse from Ecclesiastes is:

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

Seen in this light, a bird in the hand is worth much more than two in the bush, if only you don't strangle it.

Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.