“No More Choices, Please!”

Barry Schwartz

Have you ever felt overwhelmed at the number of choices to buy a salad dressing at the grocery store? Have you ever failed to choose a health care or retirement option just because, well, there were so many options that you couldn’t pick one? Have you ever searched and searched for the perfect pair of shoes, the best dress for a special event, or a new car, and then made a choice but still felt like maybe you could have found something even better?

If you answered “yes’ to any of these questions, then you are suffering from what Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz calls “The Paradox of Choice.” As he recounts in this TED lecture, Schwartz suffered so much agony when buying a pair of jeans that he decided to write a whole book explaining how Americans mistakenly think that more choices means more freedom and that more freedom means more well-being.

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One of the first-year students in my positive sociology seminar wrote a review of Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, and to my amazement my students were so persuaded by his arguments about the negative effects of too many choices on our well-being that they all shouted in a chorus at the end of class, “No more choices, please! Save us from our misery!”

One student admitted (somewhat embarrassed) that she was having trouble picking out her new glasses. She had already taken 3 female friends with her to pick out new frames; but still feeling unsatisfied, she invited 3 male friends. This same student lamented how others’ inability to choose made her miserable, “I mean, I really hate it when a guy asks me out on a date and then asks me to choose where to go!” Another student chimed in, “My stepmother always wants to buy me the perfect Christmas gift. So we go shopping for days and days and I pick out lots of things I like. But she can’t make a choice, so I end up getting nothing even though I told her I really, really wanted something!” A third student said, “No one wants to make plans when we go out with our friends because no one wants to be responsible if we don’t have fun.”

After our engaging class discussion, the student who had led the class discussion asked me, “So do you want to read this draft and discuss it on Monday? Or do you want me to revise it over the weekend and send you a new draft before we meet to discuss it?” My immediate reaction was to say, “Whichever you choose.” But when her face sunk, I quickly realized I was doing what Schwartz calls abdicating authority–when a professional such a doctor or a professor won’t tell a patient or student what to do. I corrected myself saying, “You want me to tell you what to do, don’t you?” and she nodded her head.”So why don’t you outline some revisions you think you could make, and we can discuss this draft and your plan for revision on Monday.”

Schwartz offers three main reasons for the paradox that having so many choices makes us unhappy: 1) Paralysis. We have so many options we don’t pick any of them. Just ask yourself–when was the last time you went to the store to buy something supposedly simple, like dishwashing liquid, and felt so overwhelmed by the choices you just walked out of the stores? 2) Opportunity Costs. When we have seemingly endless options,  we find it hard to be satisfied with what we do choose. Even worse, when do make a choice, we can always come up with an ‘imagined alternative’ that reduces our satisfaction with even our good decisions. Regret, not happiness, goes up when we have too many choices. 3) Escalation of Expectations. Even if we objectively make a better choice than we could have before we had so many choices, we feel worse. Why? Well, those shoes I bought last week may be the best pair I’ve  ever had, but with so many great shoes at Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, and on-line how do I know I got my dream shoes, the absolutely perfect pair of shoes I want to wear until the end of my life? To explain this regret-at-having-it-so-good-we-feel-worse, Schwartz quips in his TED lecture, “Everything was better when everything was worse.” We have become such perfectionists that we are never pleasantly surprised by what we have.

Margaret Archer

Much research in psychology, sociology and particular economics falls into this problem: our concept of the human person is a being who uses his or her reason to satisfy his or her preferences (i.e., the utility-maximizing rational choice actor). Sociologist Margaret Archer, in her book Being Human: The Problem of Agency, argues that satisfying preferences is not the same as satisfying the person. The human person, Archer persuasively argues, is driven by ultimate concerns, such as concerns for love, beauty and truth. We can’t satisfy those concerns no matter how many choices we have, as human persons ultimately are capable of imagining a better, happier, more beautiful world than any choice we have in front of us, an imaginative power Archer argues is key to positive social transformation.

Perhaps the most important lesson my students learned in positive sociology, as they told me, is that the the human person finds deep satisfaction through strong relationships with others and by having a deep sense of meaning in which one’s purpose in this life is tied to a larger narrative. Deciding where to go out on Friday, where to go out on a date, what glasses to buy, and what classes to take makes my students unhappy rather than happy. Given that I had never taught positive psychology or positive sociology before, my students ended the semester pleasantly surprised with what they got, probably because they had no idea what to expect and because they learned had many practical lessons for how to be happier.


How Does One Get Invited on a “Monastic Vacation?”

In the cloister

As a follow up to my recent post about my Monastic Vacation at a 13th-century monastery in Italy with the Servants of the Lord, my friend, the Professor of Political Science and host of the Research on Religion podcast series, Tony Gill, interviewed me about that vacation. Please visit their page to hear the podcast and learn more about the numbers of religious vocations in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as details about everyday life inside of a monastery.

How much does it cost to take a monastic vacation? Tony asked. Nothing. Most religious orders live off of donations, so donations will be accepted but they are not required. How can this be? “The love of God is free,” one person told me. So it won’t empty your pockets to take a monastic vacation, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t come away from it inspired to give more freely your own time and love to help other people.

In addition to the podcast, I suggest you watch this video interview with Father Miguel Buela, the founder of the religious family the Instiutue of the Incarnate Word, to which the Servants of the Lord belong.

Short Update on my Happiness Project

I’m continuing the Happiness Project I wrote about last week. This week, I decided to work on one of Gretchen Rubin’s resolutions of her happiness project: Order. So each night I started journaling about order in my life: when I do it well, when I don’t do it well, and how I feel when I do it well. The first problem with this part of my happiness project was that I couldn’t find the journal where I was keeping my notes about order. In fact, I had 3 journals floating around 3 places–my bedside, my desk and my purse. So, to have more order, I wrote a big title on each journal and only used each one for one task: bedside (order journal), desk (work tasks), purse (personal tasks).

Putting order into my order journal certainly helped. So what did I fill that order journal with? Well, I realized that having order in my day allowed me to be productive and on-task so that if I had to stop what I was doing to help someone, I could. I realized that if my classroom time is ordered, then my students know what to expect and can be more creative, so we all have more fun. I realized that order is not about obsessing over every little detail in our homes, cars, or purses, but about structuring our lives and our days so that we can cooperate with others. No order, no cooperation.

Another one of my my big insights from my happiness project was that we can find happiness in our own kitchen. Now that I appreciate my kitchen, I finally hired some folks to tear down a wall between my kitchen and living room, tear off the ugly wallpaper, paint the cabinets and walls, and put in new countertops. I never realized that a week of not having a kitchen could make me so miserable. No kitchen means no coffee in the morning, no warm meal waiting at night, no regular consolations from food and drink. No kitchen, no happiness.

What will my happiness project bring next? I’m both excited but nervous to find out…so stay tuned!


My Happiness Project

When I first started read Gretchen Rubin’s best-selling book, The Happiness Project, I thought, “Wow, she does a great job of summarizing tons on research on positive psychology in a way that is accessible and engaging. But, I mean, her life is so bourgeois! She has a happy marriage already, two lovely kids, and she lives comfortably in NYC. How applicable is her happiness project to my life or my students’ lives?”

Since I’m teaching some texts from positive psychology this semester, I asked my students to read Rubin’s book and to follow her lead and do their own happiness project. To set a good example, I started my own happiness project.  My dubiousness about Rubin faded as I realized two things. First, my own life often sounds (or is) just as bourgeois as Rubin’s. Second, her explanation of research in positive psychology and her practical tips for being happier helped me personally more than I if I had just read her book but not practiced anything new.

For starters, since I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the last few months, I kept a gratitude journal that focused on relationships—such as meaningful conversations, kind gestures, and warm feelings towards family. I enthusiastically wrote in my journal every night for a week about my friend Laura’s hospitality, my student Samantha’s cheerfulness, and all the people who make my work engaging.

Keeping a gratitude journal about the special people in my life definitely lifted my mood—the downs were still there, but the ups were more frequent. To borrow Barbara Frederickson’s terminology, my gratitude journal increased my attention and appreciation for the positive in my life and hence increased my positivity ratio—the ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions I felt. I didn’t find, however, that my negative emotions went away, but I was more equipped to deal with negative emotions because I had more positive emotions.

Further into Rubin’s book, I was inspired by her heartfelt rendition of the lessons she learned from Saint Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography Story of a Soul. Although Saint Therese is one of the most celebrated Catholic saints of recent times, and tons of Catholic writers have extolled her virtuous little way, the big-minded, bourgeois over-achiever in me just didn’t think I was called to holiness through little things. Clearly, as a college professor, I’m called to great things, right? (Oh my God, how bourgeois and self-important I sound when I’m honest about my thoughts!)

Rubin, who is not Catholic and not even particularly spiritual, not only read Saint Therese’s Story of a Soul and loved it, she read 17 biographies of Saint Therese. (If you think I’m exaggerating, she says it on p. 210 of The Happiness Project). Why was Rubin so obsessed with St. Therese? Rubin writes:

“I’d started my happiness project to test my hypothesis that I could become happier by making small changes in my ordinary day. I didn’t want to reject the natural order of my life—by moving to Walden Pond or Antartica, say, or taking a sabbatical from my husband. I wasn’t going give up toilet paper or shopping or experiment with hallucinogens. I’d already switched careers. Surely, I’d hoped, I could change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen [emphasis mine]. Everyone’s happiness project is different. Some people might feel the urge to make a radical transformation. I was vicariously exhilarated by these dramatic adventures, but I knew they weren’t the path to happiness for me. I wanted to take little steps to be happier as I lived my ordinary life, and that was very much in the spirit of St. Therese.” (pp. 210-211, The Happiness Project).

Reading Rubin’s words inspired me to the next phase of my gratitude journal: to give thanks for the little things in my life, such as the happiness I find in my kitchen, my living room, or my seemingly unimportant daily activities. The next day, I followed my regular routine: morning prayer, work, lunchtime gym break, shower & change, and back to work, all the while trying to be thankful for little things.

As I settled in for my twice-weekly routine of hairdrying and hairstyling my long, dark, thick and often unruly hair, I realized how anxious and unhappy I normally feel as I assemble all the tools I need to beat my hair into submission and look nice. I lined up my super-duper powerful Italian hairdryer, my boar’s head brush, my Bumble & Bumble heat protection spray, and then pointed a giant fan at me to deflect the heat from the hair dryer from overheating my whole body. “Uggh, this is so time consuming and hard!” I thought (as usual).

“God gave me beautiful hair”

About halfway through the hair-drying ritual, as my hair turned straight and fluffy and started to take shape, I thought, “God gave me beautiful hair. Be thankful for that Margarita!” So for the rest of those 30 minutes under the heat, I just repeated, “God gave me beautiful hair. God gave me beautiful hair.” Funny enough, when I went to my favorite coffee shop a few hours later, someone told me what great hair I have. When I went to Best Buy that night, someone else told me, “You have awesome hair.” My whole life, other people, and especially hairdressers, have told me I have awesome hair because it is thick, voluminous, and will do almost anything you want it to if you have the right tools and enough time. But I had never told myself, “I have great hair,” and given thanks for it.

Here are some other “little” things I gave thanks for this week: the sound of wind and birds in the morning; the smell of coffee; my pink shiny nail polish; my awesome gym and energetic workouts; sitting around a campfire and roasting smores; singing joyfully at Mass; singing the National Anthem at a UNC basketball game (and being especially thankful when I sang “the land of the free”); dancing wildly in the stands at the UNC basketball game to songs like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Jump, Jump” and “Sweat.”

Okay, so my happiness project does sound rather bourgeois. But my gratitude journal for the “little things” did what Rubin said it would do (according to positive psychology studies): by increasing my awareness of and attention to little things, I enhanced my enjoyment of little things. Rubin and Saint Therese are right: we don’t have to leave our kitchens to find greater happiness. In fact, for most of us, happiness lies precisely in this little trick: really, deeply appreciating the little moments of every day.

Thanks to St. Therese, Rubin, and positive psychology for showing me this insight. Rubin and I do not have the virtuous life of St. Therese, but we can all be happier in the lives we are called to. And if we are happy, then we can spread happiness, and perhaps even become virtuous. Although happiness and virtuousness are not synonymous, virtuousness that is unhappy won’t attract any followers. Just look at Saint Therese, whose virtuous life was undoubtedly a joyful life.

Can Suffering Lead to Flourishing?

Can bad things really lead to good things? Is it possible for suffering to lead to flourishing?

I’m sure many of us have wrestled with these questions either in our own personal lives, in trying to be compassionate with others, or in our academic work. The transformative power of suffering was a major theme of my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, yet the topic of suffering, and whether or not suffering can transform people or societies, is largely untouched by much social science.

For example, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, explained to me that since he had spent 30 years studying depression and learned helplessness, he initially wanted to get away from bad experiences and feelings and only study good experiences and positive emotions.

The result, however, was that positive psychology too often became conflated with “happiology”–or the science of feeling good all the time. Hence, at a recent meeting with Seligman, numerous sociologists around the table argued that a robust understanding of flourishing must encompass the possibility that undergoing suffering can produce personal and common goods.

Seligman stated, “It is so refreshing to hear people talk about suffering. I worked on suffering for 30 years; I felt like suffering needed no advocates.” He further explained that quite often it is the awful things in life that influence what people choose. For example, meaning, one of the five components of Seligman’s PERMA scheme of human flourishing, often arises out of awful things.

In his forthcoming work on human flourishing, sociologist Christian Smith makes a similar point: we can’t really understand flourishing or the good unless we examine evil or the bad.

Although my work focuses more on how suffering transforms individual persons’ lives, Yale sociologist Phil Gorski also pointed out that prophets, people like Martin Luther King, have intense moral suffering because they have very wide circles of empathy with other human beings. Their suffering is not only personally transformative but also socially transformative–suffering is key to empathy, compassion, and social solidarity expressed in word and action.

Does today’s generation of college students understand suffering as potentially transformative? It’s hard for me to imagine so, as suffering has moved so far out of our popular narratives which focus on happiness or flourishing as feeling good all the time, comforting ourselves, and cutting ourselves off from anyone or anything we don’t like. Although I’m a big advocate of boundaries, and I have no desire to excuse the wrong actions that can cause suffering, I’ve come to see there is no life that will be free of suffering. Rather than seeing suffering as a pure loss, we are better off if we can transform our suffering into good.

The study of flourishing need not promote suffering, but it also need not be not anti-suffering. Avoiding or minimizing suffering will be counter-productive. For most people, some form of involuntary suffering is unavoidable. In other instances, suffering or voluntary sacrifice is inherent to the exercise of mastery and acquiring skills.

Chris Peterson, another leader of positive psychology, argues that take home point of positive psychology is that simply that other people matter.  If it’s true that other people matter, then no amount of self-mastery or striving for personal PERMA will suffice to flourish–for loving others always requires some sacrifice of our own self-interest. The highest PERMA or the most flourishing life, one could thus argue, is one with a proper balance between pleasure and suffering.

Seligman repeats again and again that the study of flourishing has to get away from monism–the tendency to name one highest human good. I’m not saying that suffering is the highest human good nor the only one, nor am I even saying that suffering is good, but I am saying that any study of flourishing must leave room for the goods produced by suffering and sacrifice.

Think about it: Is it possible to develop courage without suffering? What about patience? Perseverance? Developing almost any virtue that comes to mind seems to require some amount of suffering or sacrifice, doesn’t it?

So why don’t most social theories address suffering? There is something to be said for rejecting the idea that suffering is actually good. Evil is not good. But most sociological theories are based on premises from Enlightenment thinking that the purpose of identifying suffering and evil is to manage, control and eliminate everything we don’t like. This narrative of a society without suffering, of good without evil, is part of what philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre calls the most powerful narrative of contemporary society–that we live in a bureaucratically managed society where everything in our lives and in the social and material world can be controlled, predicted or mastered.

Suffering shows that we don’t always believe in the bureaucratically managed society. Suffering is a cry out against evil, a sign that we are created for something greater than we empirically observe. As such, suffering can be transformative of one’s own life and quite possibly suffering can transform society. Think of any great figure who has transformed society for the better–Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa–and you will see a figure of suffering whose life was a witness to hope for a better world.