Linking Happiness to Less Stuff

Photo credit: Faik Koseoglu from http://www.sxc.hu

The speaker asks the audience, “If you had to choose, would you rather be a paraplegic or win the lottery?” As one might expect, the audience overwhelming votes for winning the lottery over becoming a paraplegic. Winning the lottery fits with our idea of freedom, of happiness. Just imagine the possibilities of having all that money at your disposal!

However, research shows that lottery winners are actually quite unhappy. And, believe it or not, the paraplegic scores quite highly on happiness scales.

This is the story of Psychologist, Barry Schwartz. He coined the phrase ‘paradox of choice’ through his research and subsequent book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Schwartz theorizes we are enculturated to believe that choice equals freedom. And freedom is inextricably linked to happiness. We prescribe to the maxim of ‘more choice is better.’ We think that if we win the lottery, then we will no longer be restrained. We would have so many opportunities – the freedom to choose whatever we wanted to own, or go, or dream to follow.

It seems strange to imagine that the opposite is actually true. People with fewer choices are actually happier. This is because the more choices we have, the more overwhelmed we become. We find ourselves immobilized as we weigh out the pros and cons of each choice. Then when we finally do make a choice, we immediately second-guess it. Did I pick the right pair of jeans? Is this really the best way to use my time?

Although it is perhaps an extreme example, paraplegics have remarkably less life choices than able-bodied people. Their limited choices, according to Schwartz, allow making a decision easier. And when they do make a choice, they are less likely to regret their decision.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of choice when it comes to things in the house – especially the toys. How many parents have experienced the scenario of a room bursting with toys only to find the kids turning the couch into fort. Or, a toddler surrounded by toys but who is miserable and doesn’t want to play with any of them. One could extrapolate Schwartz’s paradox of choice to children. Are children with more toys actually less happy? Do they become immobilized with indecision? Do they regret choosing one toy over another?

Part of our minimizing this month has been to get rid of toys. I am increasingly amazed that the Bear and Banana have not noticed their absence. I am hoping that fewer toys in the house will make clean up easier. But I’m also hoping that fewer toys will lead to easy decisions about what to play with next. And maybe even happier kids?

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