Is Limiting Choice the Key to Happiness?

Photo: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

If you’ve ever been to the Cheesecake Factory you know that the menu is a veritable tome. Take whatever you thought was a large menu and multiply times ten. It can be overwhelming for first-timers and when it comes time to order making a decision can be torturous.

According to researcher Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice: How More Is Less this over-stuffed menu is a symptom of a larger societal trend toward more choice, more stress and less happiness. But does it have to be?

Creatives are faced with seemingly limitless choices everyday. Navigating these choices, much like a neverending menu, is just part of the creative process, which has been shown to lead to increased happiness. I decided to investigate this obvious contradiction.

I’m reminded of the experience of getting cable tv in the 80s. When my family suddenly had 100+ tv channels after only having 3 networks (plus PBS) it was certainly cool to have all the choices when it was new. However, after the novelty wore off, sitting down to watch tv could turn into hours of flipping through channels without ever watching anything in full.

Having the massive increase in choice didn’t translate into increased happiness.

The Creative Choice

What, then, is the difference between making choices in everyday life and in a creative pursuit? When we get dressed in the morning and stress out trying to decide what to wear, is that not creativity?

A brainstorming session presents sometimes hundreds of possible directions, but it’s usually described as cathartic, not stressful. Why can’t we derive the same enjoyment from picking out an outfit or a meal as we do from designing a poster?

My theory is that people practiced in creativity don’t get stressed when presented with more choice since creativity is in large part about making choices. The operative word here is practiced. When you practice making choices as a creative, the day to day stuff is child’s play.

Setting Limits

Schwartz divides people into two groups: maximisers and satisficers. A maximiser is always looking for the best possible choice and experiences anxiety and dissatisfaction with their final desicion wondering if there was perhaps a better choice they missed. Whereas a satisficer will choose the first best option and feel content.

The trick is limiting choice. Creatives do this constantly. Every decision we make reduces the possibilies for the next decision.

When I sit down to order a meal at Cheesecake Factory, I don’t read the whole menu. I zero in on a few things that I would probably like. Sometimes someone else will suggest something “Oh, that looks like something you would like, Scott.”

The author suggests not looking at the menu at all and instead listen to what everyone else orders and pick one of those. That’s fine, unless he’s alone.

Photo: Levi Elizaga via Unsplash

I’m usually pretty quick at making up my mind at a restaurant and usually happy with my order. I guess I’m a satisficer in that sense, but when it comes to my craft I can go deep into the weeds and work on a piece of music for months. Then again, sometimes I’ll write a whole piece in one sitting, like ordering a pulled-pork sandwich (a no-brainer).

The conclusion that people would be happier with less choice is a dangerous one. That didn’t go so well for the Soviet Union and they probably had as little choice as people could possibly have. Would the author put the ability to choose one’s profession into the category of unnecessarily stressful? Probably not.

Learning to Choose

People want the freedom to choose, but we have to learn how to choose. Creative confidence, as was coined by Tom and David Kelley of IDEO, is precisely what we should be teaching in schools so that citizens are armed with the skills to navigate a complex world and make difficult choices.

Deciding what to watch on Netflix doesn’t need to be a traumatic event. By learning how to keep from being overwhelmed with possibilities, overcome the fear of choosing the wrong thing and limit the choices we are willing to consider anyone can be a satisficer in their daily life while reserving the right to maximise about the important stuff.

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