Striving to choose the best: Less happy than the rest?

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We all know people who won’t give up shopping until they have found the best even if that means spending a lot of time checking options online or going from store to store.

We also know others who will stop searching further and reach a decision once they have discovered something they find good enough.

Apparently, people vary in how much they want to make the best possible choice. This is not limited to shopping but concerns various everyday choice situations in general.

A question that rises is: Are those who always seek the best and refuse to lower their standards happier in life? Or is that perhaps a recipe for misery, since they have to live with the doubt that they could have done better by searching more?

In psychology, people who strive to make the best choice and do not settle for second best are called “maximizers”, whereas people who make a choice as soon as they find an option that is acceptable and meets some basic criteria are called “satisficers”.

For long, it has been assumed that maximizers are less happy than satisficers because the thought that there might be something better out there never lets maximizers enjoy life.

Now, adding to emerging research challenging this assumption, a new study proposes that in order to investigate whether maximizers are indeed unhappy we need to distinguish between two types of happiness.

On the one hand, happiness might mean to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, experiencing much more positive than negative emotions might be a way to be happy. This type of happiness is called hedonic happiness.

On the other hand, pursuing pleasure might not be the only way to be happy. Alternatively, happiness might mean to realize one’s potential and pursue self-fulfillment. For example, a person might be happy by engaging in activities that are personally meaningful and self-expressive, such as improving one’s skills, acquiring new knowledge, or volunteering.

Such activities may not be pleasurable on their own right. In fact, they can even be effortful and demanding. However, they make people happy because they imbue their lives with meaning and motivate them to use their full potential. This type of happiness is called eudaimonic happiness.

So far, research on maximizing and happiness has neglected eudaimonic happiness. However, a more complete answer to the question whether maximizers are more or less happy than satisficers would require assessing both types of happiness – not only hedonic, but also eudaimonic.

In a first study, around 200 Americans from a wide age range filled out a questionnaire aimed at measuring individuals’ degree of maximizing or satisficing. All participants also filled out another questionnaire measuring eudaimonic happiness. The results showed that maximizers scored higher on eudaimonic happiness than satisficers.

In a second study, another sample of around 200 Americans filled out the same questionnaires as in the first study as well as two questionnaires of hedonic happiness. The results of this study showed that although maximizers and satisficers reported similar levels of hedonic happiness, maximizers again reported higher levels of eudaimonic happiness than satisficers.

In other words, both studies showed that those who tended to seek the best option experienced higher happiness due to self-fulfillment and presence of meaning in their lives than those who tended to be satisfied with good enough options.

This research challenges the long-held assumption that maximizers are unhappy. Although they may not be happier than satisficers in terms of experiencing more pleasure and positive emotions, they definitely lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

In sum, the quest for the best should probably not be incriminated as making people unhappy. Striving to optimize one’s choices in life may provide people with opportunities to flourish. This might not be necessarily associated with more pleasure – but it is clearly associated with meaning and self-fulfillment, which are also important aspects of human happiness.


Citation: Kokkoris MD. (2016). Revisiting the relationship between maximizing and well-being: An investigation of eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 99: 174-178. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.04.099
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