The Power of 'Good Enough'
How settling can make people happier and more satisfied than gunning for "the best"
Over a decade ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz published what might be the ultimate psychological life-hacking tome, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In it, Schwartz argues that the modern world's smorgasbord of options—Brawny or Bounty? Coke Zero or Diet? Major in sociology or anthropology?—makes us less happy, not more. "Choice overload," as he calls it, makes us question our decisions, set our expectations too high, and blame ourselves for our mistakes.
The book spawned the usual TED talks and counterintuitive Internet takes. More recently, Schwartz has been interviewed in a variety of publications and platforms about how his advice holds up 10 years later. The rise of social media, he argues, has only heightened the agony of decision-making through phenomena like FOMO (fear of missing out).
One of my favorite Schwartzisms is this: If you ever aren't sure if you attended the very best party or bought the very best computer, just settle for "good enough." People who do this are called "satisficers," and they're consistently happier, he's found, than are "maximizers," people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option. Maximizers earn more, Schwartz has found, but they're also less satisfied with their jobs. In fact, they're more likely to be clinically depressed in general.
The reason this happens, as Schwartz explained in a paper with his Swarthmore colleague Andrew Ward, is that as life circumstances improve, expectations rise. People begin comparing their experiences to peers who are doing better, or to past experiences they've personally had that were better:
As people have contact with items of high quality, they begin to suffer from “the curse of discernment.” The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it. As a result, the rising quality of experience is met with rising expectations, and people are just running in place. As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live.
Schwartz' solution, as he recently explained to the psychology blogger Eric Barker, is just to settle for something that's acceptable—even if you know there's likely something better out there:
Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision.
In a Q&A session on Reddit last year, Schwartz said people can generalize this concept by arbitrarily limiting the number of choices they'll consider—five colleges, not 25—and "decide that all you need is a good enough X, not the best X," he said. "'Good enough' is almost always good enough." It's helpful information to keep in mind right after, say, the debut of a dizzying array of shiny, new iterations of a popular consumer tech product.
It can be hard, in our culture, to force yourself to settle for "good enough." But when it comes to happiness and satisfaction, "good enough" isn't just good—it's perfect.