When More is Less

paradox of choiceThe Paradox of Choice was a strange book to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of each chapter, but Schwartz belabors his points. Chapter One contains an example:

  • “I found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers” with descriptions of the variations – sounds silly, doesn’t it.
  • “285 varieties of cookies.” Yeah – it’s funny to think about.
  • “Across the aisle were juices – 13 sports drinks,’ 65 ‘box drinks’ for kids, 85… 75…” I see how choices can become overwhelming.
  • “95 options” of snacks, “15 flavors” of water, “61 varieties of sunscreen… 80 different pain relievers… 40 car stereo systems…” Enough already. I get it.

Choice provides control and happiness until it doesn’t
Schwartz points out that choice is vital to a sense of control and therefore to happiness, but there’s a point where the benefits level off and begin to drop. If you’re dedicated to getting the “best deal” all the time, you’ll be stressed out and make yourself miserable by second guessing your decisions.

“A majority of people want more control over their lives, but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives. There you have it – the paradox of our times.”

Achieving happiness
Researchers have been learning how to measure happiness for decades. Poverty is misery, but there’s a point at which more money doesn’t yield more happiness, either for an individual or a society. How these studies are conducted is interesting. I thought about articles I’ve read that Millennials are less willing to pursue an “American Dream” based on acquiring stuff, and more interested in urban living for it’s social resources than my old generation – but these points were not in Paradox (unless they were buried in the sections I skipped.)

“What seems to be the most important factor in providing happiness is close social relations.” But these impose burdens, requirements for fidelity and support that reduce choice. Here less choice leads to lesser short term control but more long term happiness. I’ve read that just talking to anther person raises your blood pressure, so we’re motivated to avoid close relationships – I thought about the book Bowling Alone – but these points were not in Paradox (unless they were buried in the sections I skipped.)

When there’s too much choice

There are chapters on the cost of missed opportunities, why even the best choice pales when surrounded by too many options, and “having too many choices produces psychological distress, especially when combined with regret, concern about status, adaptation, social comparison, and… the desire to have the best of everything.”

How to be happier

Part IV offers “What to Do About Choice.” A lot of this advice would be easy to implement if you stop obsessing over decisions. You probably follow some of it already.

  • Create rules you don’t have to think about. For example – wear your seat belt. Don’t try to evaluate for each car trip – how safe is this route? Do police patrol it frequently? Don’t make a decision at all, once you’ve set the rule – just wear your seat belt.
  • Set a limit on how much time and energy you’ll put into a particular decision.
  • Make some decisions “automatic,” perhaps for your routine grocery shopping.
  • Some decisions matter and others don’t – learn the difference for you.
  • Accept “good enough” when “best” will drive you crazy – and don’t let marketing convince you otherwise. The Big Bang Theory had a funny episode on a genius paralyzed by trying to choose a gaming system (not mentioned in Paradox, unless it was in a section I skipped.)
  • Know yourself – what you need to be happy, not what your neighbor needs. “Curtail social comparisons.” As the poet says, “If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter. For always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
  • Make your decision as final as possible, to discourage second-guessing.
  • Be grateful for “what is good about a choice or an experience.”
  • Stay off the “hedonic treadmill.”

“Choice within constraints” and “freedom within limits” you set for yourself will allow you “to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.” Choosing when to choose will leave you happier, with more energy for what really matters.

While nothing in Paradox was astonishing, it did make me think about how it fits with other things I’ve read, and offers hope to anyone burdened by too many choices and too many decisions.

What you’ll find on Amazon
4 stars from 256 reviews – that means 76% gave it 4 or 5 stars. Even some 4 star reviews mentioned Schwartz repeats himself, and some reviewers found it more “eye-opening” than I did. The repetition bothers some readers – who gave it 3 stars – more than others.


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