I used to be a real pain in the butt when it came to making decisions. My default strategy would be to:
- Look through all the options
- Make detailed comparisons
- Pick the ‘best’ option
That meant I did things like:
- Compare ingredient labels at the supermarket
- Check out the entire mall for the ‘best’ pair of jeans
- Look through every option before picking dinner
Or, a more detailed example: I’ve made a spreadsheet comparing protein bars, with criteria like sugar to protein ratio, cost per gram of protein, and total number of ingredients per bar, in a quest to find the ‘best’ bar.
I was what psychologists call a maximizer, someone who wants the best of everything, and isn’t afraid to plow through a mountain of research to get it.
But although it sounds reasonable — after all, who doesn’t want the best bang for their buck — maximizing didn’t make me happier over time. In fact, maximizing, and its close cousin perfectionism, were making me miserable.
Why the race for the best makes us unhappy
The reason is simple: Making an absolute best choice is near impossible, and trying to decide between near-impossible choices every day will drive you mad.
And, maximizers already like to drive themselves mad by the thought that no matter what choice they made, there might have been a better one. The thing is, you can never know everything of anything, including the path not taken, so second-guessing yourself like that is a sure path to unhappiness.
Researchers found that maximizers are more likely to be depressed, prone to regret, have low self-esteem, be less satisfied with their lives, and published these findings in Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness Is a Matter of Choice.
In the same paper, they also speculate that the more choices maximizers have, the more they’re prone to blame themselves when they pick a ‘bad’ choice, despite the fact that lemons fall upon everyone.
Is there a happier alternative?
Is settling for ‘good enough’ not good enough?
The opposite to maximizing is satisficing. A satisficier:
- Prefers to make quick decisions over looking through every option
- Is happy to make do with what’s good enough
- Tends to be happier with the choices they make
I’m a maximizer, my wife is a satisficer:
- When shopping for a new bed, I consulted online reviews, she picked out her favorite in the store
- I look through the mall directory to pick a restaurant, she goes into the first one she likes
- I look at every bottle, she picks out a pasta sauce in seconds
As you can imagine, I drive her nuts.
Maximizers will scoff at the idea of settling for ‘good enough.’ But satisficing doesn’t mean that satisficers have lower standards.
In Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness Is a Matter of Choice, the researchers explain that while maximizers try to meet a vague standard of ‘best,’ satisficers have clear criteria that they want to meet. Once these standards are met, they’re good to go.
“A vague standard of ‘best’” is a great way to describe the dilemma that suffocated my happiness. I had this nebulous idea of the ‘best’ in my head that I could never quite reach, and the closer I tried to get to this ideal of the maximum me, the further away it went.
There was always one more thing — one more option to compare, one more piece of information to dig up — before I could be satisfied. It was a race I couldn’t win, and my maximizing wasn’t just driving my wife crazy, it was making me exhausted.
Wait, maximizers aren’t doomed?
But it turns out that maximizers aren’t completely doomed. In a separate paper, Are maximizers really unhappy?, another group of researchers found that maximizers are just as happy as satisficers, and are no more likely to be neurotic.
In some cases, like job seekers and high school students, they found that maximizers who carefully made their career and college choices were more satisfied with their choices than people who’d made their decisions haphazardly or intuitively.
This suggests that it’s not how decision styles impact our happiness, it’s when and where we use these strategies that might make the greater difference.
5 Happiness Hacks for the Miserable Maximizers
Being a maximizer or a satisficer is not a character trait set in stone, it’s a habitual tendency that we drift towards. While I tend to be a maximizer in some areas of my life (okay — most areas), I’m a satisficer in others.
The way forward for miserable maximizers lies in awareness and flexibility. There are times when maximizing is a valuable strategy, like when you’re making a big purchase. There are times when it’s not, like deciding which toothpaste to buy. Freedom lies in knowing when you’re where.
Here are the five ‘happiness hacks/rules’ I’ve found useful in managing maximizing and becoming a more balanced human being:
1. Maximize when risks and rewards are high, satisfice when risks and rewards are low
When the cost, upsides and downsides are high, you want to do your due diligence and maximize your options (e.g. buying a house). When the cost, upsides and downsides are low, satisfice (e.g. lunch on a workday).
2. Set maximizing limits
When you’re set to maximize, set limits on its length and depth. For example, if you’re like me and want to make a spreadsheet comparing whey protein powders, limit yourself to just one hour of research so you don’t fall too deep into the rabbit hole.
3. Use shortcuts
The internet is both curse and gift to maximizers; never have you had so many options to feed your habit, never have other maximizers already done so much for you already. Use comparative websites like The Wirecutter to cut through the options, quickly.
4. Define your top three criteria
Taking a page from satisficers, define the top three criteria that are important to you when making comparisons. Is it price, features, durability, etc.?
When even three criteria becomes too much, I’ve found it useful to clarify the single most important criteria, and make the other two being nice to haves.
5. There will always be better, chase excellent instead of best
Realize that ‘best’ is near impossible, as rarely will comparisons line up perfectly (e.g., this car has more horsepower, but the other is prettier).
Instead, chase excellence, and realize that sometimes, the differences between the top choices are too minuscule to significantly impact satisfaction (e.g. delicious is not more delicious than delicious), and any choice you make between them is excellent enough.
Be Open and Let Go
The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a recovering maximizer is to be open and let go. At some point along the way, it wasn’t about finding the ‘best’ anymore, it was also about handling how badly I dealt with disappointment and regret.
There is no perfect decision that will finally make you happy — the only chance for happiness is in the imperfect now. Chasing perfection will drive you crazy, especially if you don’t know how crazy that is.
Maximizing is the idea that if you only knew the right thing and had all the right options, you could make the right decision and make your life fall in place. But nothing exists in a state of perfection, so this chase for a hopeless fantasy can only derail in dissatisfaction.
Allowing myself the grace to be wrong has let me take more chances with my life, and opened the doors to serendipitous discoveries. Sometimes, good enough is happy enough, and happiness you can have now is better than an impossible ideal you can never achieve.