The Surprising Scientific Link Between Happiness And Decision Making

There’s a happiness gap between wanting the best and accepting good enough. Here are some science-backed ways to close it.

The Surprising Scientific Link Between Happiness And Decision Making
[Photo: Flickr user Garry Knight]

How do you make decisions? Some people want to find the absolute best option (“maximizers”). Others, known as “satisficers,” have a set of criteria, and go for the first option that clears the bar.


While wanting the best seems like a good thing, research from Swarthmore College finds that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers.

This is true for two reasons. First, people who want the best tend to be prone to regret. “If you’re out to find the best possible job, no matter how good it is, if you have a bad day, you think there’s got to be something better out there,” says Barry Schwartz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Paradox of Choice.

Maximizers are also prone to measuring themselves against others. “If you’re looking for the best, social comparison is inevitable,” says Schwartz. “There’s no other way to know what the best is.” Envy quickly makes people miserable.

This happiness gap raises the question: Can maximizers learn to become satisficers? Can you learn to settle for good enough?

Possibly, but it takes some work. “What I believe is that it’s changeable and that it’s not easy to change,” says Schwartz. Here are some ways to make the shift.


Get Practical

Wisdom is realizing that “the idea of the best is preposterous. There is no best anything,” says Schwartz. Platonic ideals don’t exist in this world. Plus, we all live with limits. The best house, if it were to exist, would not be in your budget. Rather than focusing on best, start approaching decisions with a list of practical criteria. Is the house near your office? Is the yard big enough for your dog? Be honest. Maybe you want a house that looks impressive, and that’s fine to put on the list if it matters to you. Anything that satisfies all your important criteria will be fine. “Good enough is virtually always good enough,” says Schwartz.

Discover Your Inner Satisficer

In Schwartz’s personality scales, people exist along a continuum. “Nobody is a maximizer about everything,” he says. You might be spending months trying to find the best possible car, but you’re okay with choosing whatever toilet paper is on sale. Consequently, he says, “Your task is not to learn a new skill, but to transfer a skill you already have to a new domain.”

Start with medium-sized decisions. When you feel the maximizing tendency kicking in, and you start looking at all possible sweaters, make a note of it, and just pick one you like. Afterwards, evaluate whether there have been any significant downsides. Spoiler alert: There won’t be. “You discover that the world doesn’t end with a good enough sweater,” he says.

Make sure you see the upsides of satisficing, too. “You can literally cut your time working on something from hours to minutes when you realize that you don’t need to complete something perfectly, or even in some cases, realize that you can delegate it,” says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach and author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money (as well as a Fast Company contributor).

Change Your Frame Of Reference

The problem with social comparison is that people are more likely to look at those with more (versus those with less), and hence feel miserable. But you can consciously change who you see. There are many reasons to try a social media detox, for example. Learning to be happy with “good enough” is one of them.



If you have trouble making decisions, then “choose when to choose,” says Schwartz. Hire a decorator who will show you two options for light fixtures. If you’re looking for a new phone plan, call a friend who just chose one and, if she’s happy with it, go for what she went for. Chances are, you’ll like it too. You can ask the waiter which entree he likes and choose that.

Budget Your Time

Time is limited, and maximizing means you spend more time on decision making and less time enjoying whatever you’ve decided. Saunders recommends creating an overall plan for the day or week. Then get clear on what’s a high-impact task and what’s not.

“For example, a top priority task might be reviewing a contract for a large deal,” Saunders explains. “A simple to-do item might be deciding on a restaurant for lunch with a colleague.” Then figure out how much time each task should take. “Put in larger amounts of time for the big tasks,” she says, “but still limit the time.”

And for the lesser tasks? Be merciless. “For example, I can only spend five to 10 minutes looking for a lunch location. Once the 10 minutes is up, I’ll go with the best option I’ve found,” she says. Feel free to reward yourself for sticking with this goal. “Give yourself a reason to end on time,” says Saunders, such as having time for dessert at that lunch spot you’ve chosen.

Related Video: Can You Really Design Happiness? Yes, If There Are Puppies Involved.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at