The secret to happiness is low expectations

flowersThat sounds depressing doesn’t it? I think so too. But hear me out. I’ve been listening to a lot of TED Talks today on the theme of happiness and I think this is something worth thinking about.  I was listening to one by psychologist Barry Schwartz, called “The Paradox of Choice”. Some of the points he made pretty much sums up what I’ve been feeling for awhile.

We have too many choices.

I can’t help but think it sounds awful to say this out loud. Choice, as Schwartz says, is a central tenet of Western societies. Conventional wisdom tells us that more choices is better.  It’s part of the freedom that we value. It’s part of democracy. It’s part of capitalism.

I’ve traveled to a lot of places in the world where people have NO choices. They do what they can to feed themselves everyday. There is no choice. Or…take women in highly oppressive cultures. They don’t get to choose their path. The men around them choose for them. No choice is a terrible thing.

So…I can’t help but feel that by saying that I have TOO MANY choices, I am rejecting the very thing for which people before me have fought…That I don’t appreciate everything that I have and that I’ve been given. I feel as if I cannot express criticism in the midst of all the gratitude that I should and DO feel.

On the other hand…because I have had so many choices in life, I sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis, regret and dissatisfaction.  Schwartz argues that the multitude of choices DOES actually make us pretty miserable.

“The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.”

Our expectations that there is a perfect choice out there sets our expectations very high. TOO high. So, in my mind, there is a perfect job out there for me. There was a perfect University to which I could have gone. There was some perfect major I could have chosen. There is some perfect life, perfect mate, perfect house, perfect diet, furniture, hairstyle, paint color, dog food etc.  I have thousands of choices in all of these things, so if the one I choose doesn’t  live up to my expectations of perfection, I feel dissatisfied and depressed.  Perhaps, as Schwartz said, the secret to happiness IS low expectations.

But how do we artificially lower our expectations? What is a good balance between no choice and a paralyzing amount? I don’t know.  Would the choice of ten salad dressings be better than one or 150? Five career paths better than five thousand? How do you reduce choices? Should you? If not,  how do you deal with the flood of choices in life? How do you learn to accept the choices you have made?

I really don’t have answers. I’m just putting my nutty thoughts  and experiences out in the digital ether. Maybe I’ll revisit the Art of Happiness and report back on a new theory tomorrow. Perhaps a different TED talk will inspire me in another direction. Maybe I’ll meditate. But, that’s enough…Here’s the video. Of the millions of videos out there you could watch right now…will you choose this?

Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice


One response to “The secret to happiness is low expectations

  1. That’s deep… I guess I do try to limit my choices in some circumstances. I have a standard rotation of clothes, and I eat the same thing every morning (because I love oatmeal…), and I have coffee at the same time each day. I guess I try to limit my choices when they aren’t especially important, but really consider all my options when it comes to my next career or where I want to live. Michael Lewis wrote a really interesting piece about choices you might be interested in.

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