I’m about to make what the scientific community would call, a gross simplification. As a baby boomer, life was easy. You could either be a doctor or a lawyer, and if you were really wild, you could be a doctor-lawyer.
In contrast, nowadays, with the advent of the internet, there are more choices than ever before. For breakfast, I have more than 1000 different cereal brands and flavors I can choose from.
However, according to researcher Barry Swartz, more choices often make us paradoxically more anxious and unhappy because of the Paradox of choice. No matter what we choose, we feel another choice might have been better. Except if you chose Reese's Pieces. It’s like the cereal version of the holy grail.
Over the past few weeks I have been reflecting on this idea as I settle back down into University life. I have pondered it because for the most part, I'm loving my life right now. My belongings can practically all fit inside of a small suitcase and a backpack and most of the activities I do I have been doing for at least two years.
What I'm trying to say is despite the endless amount of choices in the digital age, I have chosen to remain with just a few. And I think I'm happier because of it. I'd like to explore why that might be.
I believe this increased amount of choice has lowered our happiness for five main reasons:
- We Have Higher Regret
- There Are More Opportunity Costs
- Our Expectations Have Risen
- We Feel Shame
- We Are Stuck On The Hedonic Treadmill
Let's go over each and discuss how we can lower fight against them.
We Have Higher Regret
When there are more choices we have an easier time imagining another choice could have been better even if we made a good choice.
For example say you go to a super mega giant camera store. You're looking for a camera to bring with you on your awesome trip to Hawai. You needs something that can take some simple photos and is small so you can record while surfing. That's it.
But unfortunately, the side-by-side comparisons cause you to consider all the attributes on which the cameras differ meaning you start to compare them on attributes that don't really matter to you.
Suddenly your thinking about megapixels, sensor size, zoom type, method of stabilization. You exit the store with a camera completely unlike what you were looking for. And to make it even worse. Because there were so many cameras choices, you have higher regret. There was probably a better camera you could have gotten.
The insane amount of choices can also lead us to analysis paralysis. We don't make a choice at all. We don't act.
However, this inaction is even worse than making a choice because Regrets of non action hurt more in the long term compared to regrets of action.
This is because the pain of inaction increases with time compared to the pain of action for a few reasons:
- The passage of time increases confidence and makes earlier failures to act inexplicable. We don't remember the reasons we didn't act so we get mad at our past selves for being cowards
- Factors that inhibit behavior tend to be less salient than those that prompt behavior
- We have the ability to imagine all the great things that could have happened if we did something
Ultimately, the massive amount of choice in the digital age leads to us liking the final choice we make less and sometimes more insidiously cause inaction.
I believe there are two main solutions to these problems which I plan to explore in a later newsletter.
Firstly, Probabilistic thinking which involves using the probability of events to inform our Decision making. This allows you to not regret your choices on a decision because you know you made the best choice with the information you had. In addition, consider the situation you will use something in the future when making a buying decision.
Secondly, contrary to popular advice, I encourage you to be action prone in early life and more reserved later on. When you're younger you haven't learned what you enjoy and don't enjoy doing. You haven't explored your talents and built up your skills. Biasing yourself towards action before you are older and more wise will help you live with less regrets.
There Are More Opportunity Costs
With the increased amount of choices there are more Opportunity Costs.
Opportunity costs are a concept in Economics in which choosing to do one thing means you can't do another. Life is one big ol' massive game of opportunity costs.
If you spend ten hours studying for an exam, that's ten hours of content creation or socializing that you potentially missed out on. If you spend 20 minutes snoozing your alarm every morning, that's 20 minutes every day you are missing out on to do something else. Like eating peanut butter.
And because there are so many choices, there are artificially more opportunity costs. Making one choice means not being able to do something else. But this only occurs as a result of there being another choice.
My favorite way to deheighten this effect goes back to Probabilistic thinking. Through making decisions probabilistically you don't have to live in regrets as much because you know you made the best choice with the information you had.
Our Expectations Have Risen
People expectations of how good something should be has risen a ton because the quality and quantity of choices have risen in society.
Imagine that for your entire life you ate dirt. Dirt was all you had. You didn't know that there was such a thing that was better than dirt. But over time you learned to get used to your dirt eating existence. You realized there were actually quiet a few varieties of dirt: wet dirt, dry dirt, salty dirt, dirt with worms. So much flavor! To you this dirt gives you an eight out of ten on your happiness scale.
Now imagine that you met someone that's favorite food was chicken nuggets. They ate it all the time. To them chicken nuggets were also a eight out of ten on the happiness scale. You decide to have some of these chicken nuggets and suddenly realize what you have been missing all of this time. Dirt becomes a 1/10 on the happiness scale. You can't have it anymore and be happy.
In effect, your expectations just rose and you can't take pleasure in the same low quality food as before. Scale this to everything in life and you get the effect our increased choices have on our expectations. Most people can't be happy just reading a book in the sunlight anymore.
Suffering comes from the clash of your expectations with reality. One of the happiest countries in the world is Denmark. When a news reporter visited to ask them why they were so happy, one of the residents answered "we just don't have high expectations."
So maybe the secret to feeling more content with your life is to lower your expectations. I'm not saying expect that your house is going to get hit by a meteor. But maybe you don't need that Starbucks Large Chocolate Latte to feel like you can make it through the morning.
We Feel Shame
When people feel bad for their choices they don’t tend to find inadequacy in the system but rather themselves, coalescing in shame and worsening mental health.
People forget we are monkeys living in a consumerist digital age. We are completely out of the environment we evolved for.
The solution to this is simply to give yourself some more slack. Don't get angry about the effects mentioned here. They all served great functions on the African Savanah.
We Are Stuck On The Hedonic Treadmill
Hedonic adaptation is the tendency for humans to go back to a baseline level of happiness after positive or negative changes in their life.
This is important to understand because it suggests that simply pursuing higher and higher states of hedonic pleasure will not lead to sustainable happiness.
And yet that's exactly what many people do because of how many choices there are in the digital age. We think we will be happy after we just get that raise or after we we get that video game or give that presentation.
This tendency culminates itself in the metaphor of the Hedonic treadmill, the human tendency to pursue one pleasurable activity after another. Like someone hopelessly running on a treadmill but going no where.
The solution to hedonic adaptation is to become aware of its existence. And then to accept that maybe getting that one thing isn't going to magically make you happy.
In many ways the increased amount of choices are a blessing and a curse. Some of the choices we have access to in the modern era are blessings. For example, I have the option to choose who I want to marry. 200 years ago it was very likely if you lived in America you would be born and die in the same 15 mile stretch of land.
At the same time we need to know how these increased choices effect us and what we can do to live alongside them. Reply to this email with any difficulties choices have had on your life in the past few weeks.
Here's what I would like to share this week.
📸News From The Channel!
Multitasking Is Destroying Your Enjoyment of Life: Multitasking seems like an innocent enough thing to do. But in this video, I will show how multitasking, when done over time, can make it extremely difficult to enjoy life. This is because it increases mind wandering, hurts your focusing muscle, and ultimately makes it harder to get into the flow state.
Matthew Dicks: Why And How To Find, Develop, And Tell Stories: Matthew Dicks is an internationally bestselling author, columnist, blogger, podcaster, playwright, and teacher. A 53-time Moth StorySLAM champion and 7-time Moth GrandSLAM champion, Matthew teaches storytelling and public speaking to individuals, corporations, universities, entrepreneurs, religious institutions, and school districts worldwide. We talked about why to tell stories, how to find stories, how to organize and develop stories in your Personal Knowledge Management system, how to make time for stories, and finally, how to tell better stories.
💡My Best Insights:
📖Book - God's Debris: a young pizza delivery man has the conversation of his life when he finds out the old man he's delivering pizza to knows everything about everything. Throughout the conversation they talk about everything from what is god, to why probability is the force of everything, and finally the definition of science. It's a thought provoking short piece that will make you question everything you thought you knew about the world.
✍️Blog Post - The Introspection Trap: Introspection can sometimes lead to the introspection trap. We think of introspecting as an inherent good so when we do it we believe we always come out with productive valuable insight. But if journaling is done during a period of heightened emotion right after a traumatic event it might make us come out with biased information fueled by confirmation bias. The crucial aspect of temporality in journaling isn't just how often you do it but about when you do it.
🎙️Podcast - Happiness 2.0 The Path to Contentment: Suffering comes from the clash of your desires and expectations with reality. This is why the Danish are some of the happiest people on earth. They just don’t have that high expectations. The podcast also shows why paradoxically the pursuit of happiness can make you less happy.