“It seems un-American not to be out for the best, to settle for anything less than the best,” says psychologist Barry Schwartz and author of the book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.
If that’s the truth, we’re in for a miserable existence.
When you live in a world where everything is rated and there is a palpable trend to always have “the best,” determining what “the best” is with our infinite choices sets unrealistic expectations that can make life torturous.
“That’s where people really get themselves into trouble,” Schwartz says. “It is simply impossible to determine what the best of anything is.”
As a society, how did we get here?
Schwartz points to the options we have. More choices result in us wanting more, or from the other perspective, never being content with what we’ve got. We instantly regret the choices that we make. It becomes impossible for us to appreciate the life we have. Instead, choices result in a wandering mind. We wonder, Did I choose the right job? The right career? The right school? The right life partner?
Raising the stakes
Another consequence of having so many options is that every decision is now categorized as “high stakes.”
Case in point is the variety of jeans available to us. When the options are only Levi’s or Lee, the jeans you wear don’t say much to the world about who you are because “there just isn’t enough variety in jeans to match the variety in individuals,” says Schwartz.
But now there are thousands of jeans brands available. Every pair is rated, reviewed, and worn by social media influencers from all walks of life.
Now, all of a sudden, the stakes are higher.
“Not only are you covering your body with an item of clothing, but you’re also saying, ‘I am the kind of person who wears these jeans,’ and the consequence of that is that the stakes of even trivial decisions go up,” explains Schwartz, who recently completed a series of studies exploring this topic.
In other words, buying jeans is no longer a search for the most comfortable, durable pair that also happens to fit you well. Instead, the jeans you choose is a statement of identity.
If something as mundane as buying jeans can be this paralyzing, consider choices that are a lot more complex, like choosing a career or a life partner.
Aiming for average
There’s no doubt that having choices is a good thing for society. After all, how would we know the value of our choice if we didn’t have anything to compare it to? The problem is, our society now has an abundance of choices. We can’t streamline these choices, but we can change our attitude and save ourselves from a lot of torture.
In areas that impact our lives the most, instead of beating yourself up for not getting what is considered the best or continue looking for the best, which you hope is out there in the universe, says Schwartz, learn how to turn the very good option you have into the best experience for you.
“It’s a very different attitude and takes a lot of the pressure off,” he explains.
In other words, in those situations, ask yourself, How do I turn this job into a better job? Where do I have the freedom and flexibility to make this job more meaningful than it is? How do I turn this relationship into a better relationship? Where do I have the freedom and flexibility in the way that I interact with my romantic partner?
In the purest form, this kind of attitude results in what the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed was the ultimate purpose of existence for humans: happiness. In a more sinister form, adopting this attitude could lead to settling in life. How do you know where to draw the line?
To answer this question, we turn again to Aristotle, who devoted a lot of thought to the topic of happiness. Aristotle believed happiness came from the cultivation of virtue, which can only be achieved and maintained by what he called “The Mean,” or the right amount or balance between two excesses or extremes.
For instance, if the virtue of courage is to be achieved, The Mean lies somewhere between recklessness and cowardice. A courageous person is not reckless or a coward, but somewhere in between. Similarly, if we were to apply Aristotle’s The Mean teaching to the choices we make, it would lie somewhere between settling and looking for opportunities that make your choice better, explains Schwartz.
“Somewhere between those two extremes is the sweet spot,” he explains. “You can ask yourself, ‘Am I just going along to get along? Should I be more active? Should I be more aggressive? What can I do to make this job better?’ You can ask yourself these questions and do a check on yourself to make sure you’re not settling.”