Like many parents, I have spent the past several years trying to figure out why so many of us and our children fret over getting into college when there is, at least in the United States, a surplus of good schools to choose from. It's like being handed tickets to the Super Bowl and, instead of enjoying the game, worrying that the seats might not be close enough to the 50-yard line.
It never occurred to me that this contrary reaction to our collegiate riches was a metaphor for the poisonous nature of choice in modern life. But I have just read a little book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" by Barry Schwartz, that argues this thesis very convincingly. One insight in particular threw my congenitally upbeat, everything-is-getting-better world view seriously off-balance.
In the 1960s, Schwartz explains, psychologist Martin Seligman developed the concept of "learned helplessness" while experimenting with animals. When mice learned that they could not control a situation -- that, for instance, nothing they did to get over a small barrier prevented receiving an electric shock -- their motivation decreased, they became subdued, their immune system broke down and they began to lose the ability to detect future situations that they COULD control.
Feelings of helplessness among Americans, Schwartz hypothesizes, should be, by that argument, declining since we have so much more control over so many more choices these days. But a series of Louis Harris polls shows otherwise. The portion of people saying "what I think doesn't matter any more" increased from 36 percent in 1966 to 60 percent in 1986.
And when researchers measured satisfaction with life in various countries, they found that once a country reached a certain level of per capital wealth, the level of happiness of its residents was not affected by increased affluence and added choices in life. Per capita income in the United States has doubled in the past 40 years, for instance. The percentage of homes with air-conditioning has gone from 15 to 73 percent, with clothes dryers from 20 to 70 percent. We have more of everything, including more money to send more of our children to college, even to schools that charge $40,000 a year. But the surveys show no increase in happiness, on average, over that time.
And as any parent knows, we are much more anxious about the college admissions process than we ever were before.
That is the paradox of choice. Schwartz's 265-page exploration of this theme, published several months ago, qualifies as the latest selection of my Better Late Than Never Book Club. As usual, it took me awhile to hear about this book, and even longer to read it. But it was worth the wait.
Schwartz is Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, and he knows something about selective schools. He describes the difficulties faced by the bright young people who agonize over where to go to school, and what to do once they get there. Swarthmore "attracts some of the most talented young people in the world," he says. "Unconstrained by limitations of talent, the world is open to them. Do they exult in this opportunity? Not most of the ones I talk to. Instead, they agonize: Between making money and doing something of social value. Between challenging their intellects and exercising their creative impulses. Between work that demands single-mindedness and work that will enable them to live balanced lives."
The wisdom of their choice of college or major or career has less to do with the objective results than with their subjective experiences. "What matters to us most of the time, I think, is how we feel about the decisions we make," he says. "I have interacted with college students for many years as a professor, and in my experience, students who think they're in the right place get far more out of a particular school than students who don't. Conviction that they have found a good fit makes students more confident, more open to experience, and more attentive to opportunities."
It is relationships with other people that seem to be the key to happiness, the research shows, but Schwartz points out that good marriages and friendships reduce choice, since one has to think of what other people want.
So how do we deal with a world that gives us more choices than we can handle? Schwartz has many suggestions, which I have whittled down to the six I think work best for me. Read the book to find more. It is important to remember that we are all going to have bad moments with some choices, but there are healthy habits of mind to get us through:
* 1. Listen to your viscera -- Feelings matter more than facts, and an unexamined emotional response is often a better guide to our long-term needs than careful analysis of our thoughts. Schwartz cites a study in which college students were asked to evaluate posters for their dorm rooms. Some were asked to write down their feelings about the posters. Some were not. And then both groups were told they could take home the posters they preferred. Those who analyzed their thinking before making their choice were less happy with their posters weeks later than those who went with their instincts.
* 2. Count your blessings -- Schwartz says gratitude has been proven scientifically so powerful in enhancing happiness that people should write in a bedside notebook each day five things that happened for which they were grateful.
* 3. Satisfice -- Your spellchecker, like mine, may complain about that word. Schwartz uses it as a verb, as in, "You need to satisfice more," and it does not appear in my dictionary. But it is the key to the book. "To satisfice," Schwartz says, "is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better." This is hard for many of us to do, but there are ways to pull it off. Try thinking of all the time you waste figuring out which long distance service is best when you could be soaking in a nice hot tub. That is satisficing.
* 4. Regret less -- My favorite mental exercise, when wondering if I was right to have made a certain choice, is to concede that if I had taken the alternate road, I might have been hit by a bus. Schwartz endorses this vehicular approach to mental health.
* 5. Anticipate adaptation -- Schwartz devotes many pages to the process of adaptation, which he describes this way: "We get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted." This can ease the pain of bad circumstances, like being a Chicago Cubs fan, but Schwartz is more interested in the way adaptation sucks some of the thrill out of good things, like marrying your sweetheart or winning the lottery. If you recognize that this tendency is going to affect you, you are less likely to misinterpret it as a sign you made the wrong choice.
* 6. Avoid conversations about choice with maximizers -- Maximizers are people who obsess over every decision, who don't know how to satisfice. People who are maximizers can change, if they read Schwartz's book and adhere to the five rules above. But I think one more rule is useful, even if Schwartz doesn't mention it. Once you have your feelings under control, it is best to avoid maximizing topics with maximizers, like where to go on vacation or which college will set you up to win a Nobel Prize. Instead, change the subject to matters over which you have little control, but are still fun to talk about. For instance, I think they ought to name our new major league baseball team in Washington the Grays, but I will be happy to hear what you have to say on this important matter.