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Paradox of Plenty – Too Much of a Good Thing?

This week we celebrate Independence Day and our good fortune to live in a society where we get to make our own decisions.  Possibly our most fundamental belief is that the freedom to choose makes people happy. The more affluent we become, the more freedom/choices we have available to us and, in theory, the happier we should be. The problem is the average American is less satisfied with his or her life and clinical depression has exploded during the past 30 years while our economy and standard of living has grown. Why? This epidemic is called the paradox of plenty, and the reasons are explained in the book: The Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. His TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 11 million times and is quite entertaining if you have nineteen minutes to invest. If not, a quick summary follows below.

Three negative effects of too many choices:

  1. Paralysis – The more options we have to select from, the more likely we will procrastinate. This was shown repeatedly in various experiments. An analysis of over 600 corporate retirement plans showed that the more mutual fund choices a company offered in its 401k, the fewer people participated in the plan. This is because the task of selecting the right funds became overwhelming.
  2. Second Guessing – We are more likely to end up less satisfied with our choice. Assume you have three salad dressings to choose from. You know you don’t like bleu cheese or honey mustard, so you pick Italian and you feel good about it. What if there were 24 salad dressings to choose from? You are likely to be filled with doubt that you picked the best one regardless of which one you pick.
  3. Escalation of Expectations – Remember when everyone bought Levi 501 jeans? They were so stiff and uncomfortable for the first year (until you had washed them about 200 times). The good thing was we expected that. Now, there are an unlimited number of styles, cuts, colors, and finishes from hundreds of different brands of jeans. Do you want skinny jeans or boot cut? Acid wash or dark? Denim or jeggings? The likely scenario is the jeans you purchase will be much more comfortable than the 501s of 30 years ago. Sadly, you will be less satisfied with your purchase. The reason you are likely to be less satisfied is that with all these choices, you expect to find the “perfect” pair of jeans. Thirty years ago, we blamed Levi Strauss when the jeans we bought were uncomfortable, but when there are so many options, we blame ourselves for not picking the perfect jeans. Perhaps the key to happiness is lower expectations.

More is not always better:

I think of “choices” like muscle development. Some muscle tone is better than none, but it does not follow that more is always better (e.g., most people do not want to be bodybuilders). The bottom line is material affluence enables more choice, but it frequently makes people less happy. This does not mean that you should shun material affluence to avoid the paradox of plenty. It simply means that we will all be better off if we keep the following ideas in mind: Less can be more, don’t be paralyzed by the pressure to make perfect decisions, and don’t blame yourself when the solution you chose is not perfect. Perfection comes with a price. With most things in life, good can be good enough and acceptance of that can lead to greater life satisfaction.

P.S. Another good TED talk on the subject of choice is Sheena Iyengar’s: The Art of Choosing

Have a great 4th of July weekend, and thanks for choosing to read this article. ????