In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz set out two decision-making styles: maximising and satisficing. Maximisers aim to choose the best option available. Satisficers, in contrast, are happy with any option that’s “good enough”, even if it’s not the best.
Schwartz explains there’s a positive correlation between maximising and some bad things (depression and regret), and a negative correlation with good things (happiness, optimism, self-esteem and life satisfaction). The idea is that maximising causes unhappiness, so becoming a satisficer will presumably make you happier.
However, there are three big caveats to this line of thinking:
- There may not be a causative link.
- Your goal may not be subjective happiness.
- There may be a difference between happiness over time vs at a point in time.
There may not be a causative link
The first big caveat is that Schwartz’s study only shows a correlation, not causation. Satisficing may not cause happiness and maximising may not cause unhappiness. Schwartz responsibly points out himself that his study does not show causation, though he personally believes causation exists.
I’m less convinced — I suspect there’s one or more other variables confounding the relationship between maximising/satisficing and happiness. A strong positive correlation between ice cream sales and violent crime doesn’t mean that ice cream causes crime (or that crime causes people to buy ice cream). The confounding variable here is high temperatures, which cause both ice cream sales and violent crime to increase.
Similarly, the tendency to overthink could be driving both maximising tendencies and unhappiness. Or perhaps the confounder is a scarcity mindset. People who feel like they don’t have enough are more likely to feel unhappy and stressed, and the feeling of scarcity pushes people into trying to make the most of their limited time and money. In these cases, maximising would be a symptom, not the cause, and you’d be better off addressing the confounder directly (if possible). I’m just spitballin’ here, but to me these explanations sound about as plausible as the idea that maximising causes unhappiness.
Admittedly, showing causation in this area is rather difficult. You’d probably need a longitudinal study to prove causation, but those are very challenging and I’m not aware of any that exist. So you may decide to just try and “be a satisficer” anyway if there doesn’t seem to be much harm in doing so.
Your goal may not be subjective happiness
There’s some evidence to show that maximisers achieve objectively better results than satisficers, but be less happy about them. Schwartz dismisses this quite quickly:
Getting the best objective result may not be worth much if we feel disappointed with it anyway.
I generally agree with Schwartz here, but it’s worth pointing out that other people may have different goals. Perhaps you care less about subjective happiness than you do about success or societal well-being.
As Naval Ravikant has noted, there’s an inherent tension between success and happiness. If you want to be successful, you should surround yourself with people more successful than you. But if you want to be happy, you should surround yourself with people less successful.
Similarly, if your focus is on societal well-being, satisficing may not be a good strategy. For example, the core of the Effective Altruism movement is finding the very best things to do, noting that some interventions can be hundreds of times more effective than others. So even if making a more considered, analytical donation makes you slightly less happy, it may lead to greater happiness overall. And even outside the domain of altruism, your actions will sometimes impact others.
Though a maximising approach may be worse for the individual making the decisions, objectively better decisions may lead to better outcomes for broader society. (Of course, that’s assuming individuals take into account their impact on others while making decisions — if they don’t, then maximising and satisficing shouldn’t make a difference.)
Happiness over time vs At a point in time
Even if subjective happiness is your goal, it’s possible that maximising leads to greater happiness over time. This part is very speculative, and I’m not 100% convinced of it myself. But I do think it’s worth raising anyway.
Schwartz’s studies only looked at measures of subjective well-being in the short term. However, it’s possible that maximising leads to unhappiness in the short term, yet increase happiness in the longer term.
Think of it like saving money. When you decide not to take that overseas trip so that you can pay off your mortgage faster, you know you’re foregoing happiness now. If you measure their happiness now, it won’t be surprising to find the saver is less happy than the vacation-goer. But at some later point —say, when the saver has fully paid off their mortgage— the results may reverse. Maximising is similar to saving because the time you spend analysing options can save you money and give you knowledge that can help in future decisions.
The flaw in this argument is that better objective results don’t necessarily lead to increased happiness. This is a complex area which I won’t get into here. The idea that it can be hard to move away from the maximising/saving mindset and continue to overthink decisions even when it doesn’t make sense to certainly rings true for me. People have written books about how we have to live more in the present, and I don’t doubt that the problem exists.
My point is simply that Schwartz’s assumption that satisficing is always the better strategy may be too simplistic. Maximising and satisficing may be appropriate at different points of our lives. If you start out maximising and shift to satisficing later, you might get the best of both worlds — better objective outcomes and higher subjective well-being overall.
Though I am aware my speculation could just be the motivated reasoning of a dyed-in-the-wool maximiser. After all, I’m trying to optimise the extent to which we should maximise.
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Do you want to be a satisficer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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