Why Dating Is Such a Challenge
The paradox of choice could be the reason you're single.
Posted Feb 12, 2018
“Dating today is a nightmare” are the first words that come out of Barry Schwartz’s mouth when I ask him about today’s social landscape. Schwartz is a renowned behavioral psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, a life-changing book that examines how and why having too much choice makes us miserable.
To illustrate, Schwartz describes a trip to Gap. What should be a fairly quick shopping trip becomes a full day of torture as you try find the perfect pair of jeans. Instead of purchasing the first item that fits well enough, you end up trying more and more styles, never stopping until you discover that best, most magical pair in the store. That’s because once you find something good, you start to believe there’s probably something even better out there, so you keep going, and going, and so on.
Therein lies the paradox of choice: when variety appears to be a good thing but actually makes life more challenging. Now, substitute the jeans for a romantic partner and you have what Schwartz calls “the most consequential domain where this paradox would play out.”
In every aspect of our lives, we are confronted with myriad choices, but how we make these choices is often more important than what we choose. The shopping trip shows an example of what Schwartz describes as “maximizing” behavior. “Maximizers treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try a lot on before finding the perfect fit. For a maximizer, somewhere out there is the perfect lover, the perfect friends. Even though there is nothing wrong with the current relationship, who knows what’s possible if you keep your eyes open.”
In contrast to maximizers are satisficers, who are willing to settle for good enough and not worry about there being something better out there (let’s face it, there probably is). Still, satisficing doesn’t mean you should jump for joy when presented with garbage options. You can and should expect high standards, says Schwartz, “but the difference is between looking for very good versus the very best.”
As you can imagine, the maximizer’s quest for perfection comes at a cost. In general, maximizers are less satisfied and more prone to depression than satisficers, which makes sense—if you refuse everything but the absolute best, you probably won’t end up with very much.
Naturally, the smarter, more satisfying option is to be a satisficer.
Not only do satisficers experience less FOMO (fear of missing out), but they are also much happier than maximizers. Just look at the world’s best satisficers, the Danes, who according to the World Happiness Report, are ranked among the happiest people in the world.
Denmark partly owes its surplus of smiles to a practice called “hygge,” which means finding joy in normal, everyday life. For example, 85 percent of Danes say they get their fuss-free hygge fix by lighting candles. They even prefer plain, unscented ones to the fancier, scented options. Danes also follow the Law of Jante, an unofficial ethos that frowns upon individual achievement and success. Jante is straight-up kryptonite to maximizers. Rather than treating life like an endless rat race, Danish children are taught to be content with being average and, well, having average things. And, in return for accepting the ordinary, they end up less anxious, less stressed, and, most importantly, less miserable than the rest of the maximizing world.
Danes aren’t the only people who know how to be happy with what they have. Throughout most of history, we all did.
For thousands of years, humans survived because they satisficed. In times of scarcity, people didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for gourmet chef-prepared wildebeest carpaccio or Apartment Therapy-worthy cave dwellings. Passing up whatever came down the pike easily meant starving or being murdered by a predator. And, when it came to mating, proximity was pretty much the only thing that mattered—even up until the last century.
In Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari and a team of sociologists investigate past and present dating practices and found in one 1932 study that one-third of married couples had previously lived within five blocks of each other. Even more alarming, one-eighth of these married couples had lived in the same building before they got hitched. Because people traveled so infrequently, much like the cave people before us, they often had little choice but to mate with the first eligible person they came across. After all, who knew when another potential mate would come along?
This satisficing mindset would continue to dominate how people made life choices, until the widespread rise of modern affluence and technology turned us all into jacked-up maximizers running wild in Willy Wonka’s choice factory. To quote the late Notorious B.I.G., “It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.” More money means more choices in how you spend it; and, more technology means being exposed to everything you never knew you wanted.
Before, we could be happy our entire lives without having any idea what a cruffin was, but now, thanks to Yelp, we know we cannot live without them. In addition, the media has essentially turned into a propaganda machine for maximizing, demanding we buy this perfect or best [fill in the blank] in every article or blog post. An alternative doesn’t seem to exist. When is the last time you read an article titled “10 Good, Not Great Hairstyles You Need Try Now” or “How to Mostly Satisfy Him in Bed”? It’s go best or go home.
The paradox of choice is most painfully obvious in the realm of dating. Especially on online dating apps, there is less being swept off your feet and more getting trampled by a utilitarian assembly line of swipes. How quickly have we thumbed left simply because the face peering back at us had an eyebrow hair out of place or because the guy seemed short even though you could only see his head? How many amazing potential mates have we missed out on because we were convinced the next profile would be better?
This ease of maximizing might explain why even though more than 20 percent of 25- to 40-four-year-olds use dating apps, only 5 percent of them are able to find committed or lasting relationships through them. If you’ve ever logged on to Tinder, then you already know it’s most popular export is instant gratification, not true love...
An excerpt from Love And... Bad Boys, "The One" and Other Fun Ways to Sabotage Your Relationship by Jen Kim. Available now. Copyright 2018.