Less is More. Commitment = Happiness

I just listened to this presentation from PopTech by Barry Schwartz (psych. prof. at Swarthmore). He provides a good set of data showing that at some point additional choice is not just useless, it is actively bad. One of his examples was speed dating with 20 dates per eveing resulted in fewer matches than speed dating with 10 dates per evening!

More choices apparently increase buyer’s remorse
More choices increase the oppotunity cost of any given choice.

Best Quote:

What a college education does seems to do in the US is it enables you to leave working at mcdonalds and go instead to work at starbucks …. while you wait desparate for the answer to the question what
should I do with my life to emerge… and it doesn’t emerge….”

His implicit calim is that commitments result in greater happiness.

In Built to Last, Collins and Poras provide a lot of evidence that successful companies are those that don’t simply seek money, but that have cult like cultures about fulfilling the company’s mission and achieving its (BIG) goals. By foreclosing choices, this cult like culture makes it easy for employees to coordinate and get things done with less management overhead (e.g. driving on the right hand side).

So modern psychology, and modern business theory all tell us that choice foreclosure is good. Where they all appear to fail is in providing us with tools to know how to foreclose choice (to what/whom do you commit).

In a talk called “5 Levels of Pleasure” my friend, Rabbi Glaser, described the various sorts of pleasure (happiness) that comes from various types of emotional investments/commitments/forclosures-of-choices. He too fails to provide a way of making choices, but at very least he provides us with a way of distinguishing investment from consumption in each category.

Rabbi Glaser’s 5 levels of pleasure
(you may need to scroll down here due to formatting wierdness with my stylesheet)

Pleasure Level Investment/
Opportunity Cost Consumption/Commodification
1. Physical To a taste (e.g. wine, music, etc) Time, attention, opportunity Glutonny, No Pain
2. Emotional To a person. Kvelling. His/Her flaws. Loving others. Lust. Taking. Using.
3. Moral (meaning) To a cause for which you are willing to die. Social (Looking bad). Looking/feeling good.
4. Creative To a talent (build expertise). Being a jack of all trades. Power
5. Spiritual To a community. (flag, family). Letting go of ego. Idolatry

Perhaps the solution to finding your fields lies in existentialism. But it doesn’t quite get me there. Any ideas?


5 Responses to Less is More. Commitment = Happiness

  1. morgan says:

    the funny thing is that most people i know first need to try lots of things (and this is only possible if you first have lots of choices) before they can commit adequately to any one thing (and thus limit their future choices): so greater happiness with fewer choices is a good thing only following an era when you have lots of choices. SO you need both, but at different points. I’ll also point out that this pattern (first more choices, then choose to have fewer choices) is important because, if you jump right to the conclusion (fewer choices=good) then that’s the origin of totalitarianism & socialism (ie, “people are happier with fewer choices, therefore there is no need to construct a society in which people have lots of choices, therefore….”)


  2. i think that making good choices is a honable skill, like archery or social deftness. making a commitment to a choice and throwing the full weight of your belief behind that choice means that two things can happen: you’re definitely going to be more prepared to make decisions the next time you’re faced with a fork in the road, and: if your choice is bad, you will become better at recognizing bad decisions before you make them, and if your choice is good, your life becomes better because you’ve got full confidence in a decision and a path.

    they don’t need to be enormous choices, like what will your company’s business focus be, or where you are going to go to college. they can be small choices, like do i get the general tsao’s or the sesame chicken. but if you throw the full weight of confidence behind your decision, that’s going to be the best damn sesame chicken you’ve ever had, goddamit. you’ll be a better person because of that incremental reduction of self-doubt.

  3. Josh, it is the best damn sesame chicken when it is the best damn sesame chicken. Although I agree that it may make you feel good, passionately believing something does not make it true.

    And, sometimes action and expression of that passionate believe results in poor outcomes for the people around you.

  4. you misunderstand me. i am saying that strength in one’s snap judgements enhances the part of the brain that makes those judgements.

    belief in the best damn sesame chicken because you chose it – AND a willingness to eat and enjoy that crappy-ass lo mein because you chose it – makes you a person who is better at snap decisions.

  5. The better person recognizes sunk costs, throws out the crappy-ass lo mein, and orders from a different restaurant.

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