TED Radio Hour: Barry Schwartz: Does Having Options Make Us Happier? Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. He says choice has paralyzed rather than freed us, leaving us dissatisfied instead of happy.

Barry Schwartz: Does Having Options Make Us Happier?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

TED brings the best and brightest people together from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. They share some big ideas from the stage of a TED conference.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential. And I realized that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The miracle of your mind isn't that you can see the world as it is. It's that you can see the world as it isn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

STEWART: Here on the TED RADIO HOUR, we'll hear some of their TED talks, and then we'll talk to them. On today's show:


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: The secret to happiness...happiness...happiness...happiness...

STEWART: Being happy is perhaps the most universal human yearning, but this simple goal often eludes us. Suppose we can understand happiness. Then how do we find it? On the program, we'll follow three TED speakers on their quests. Let's begin with Barry Schwartz.


BARRY SCHWARTZ: I want to start with what I call the official dogma of all Western industrial societies, and the official dogma runs like this: The more choice people have, the more freedom they have; and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.

SCHWARTZ: I'm Barry Schwartz. I'm a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College.


SCHWARTZ: This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn't occur to anyone to question it.

STEWART: In 2005, Barry shared a big idea at TED that hits at the underpinning of all we've traditionally believed about choice, freedom and happiness. We'll talk with Barry in just a few minutes. Right now, let's get back to his TED talk.


SCHWARTZ: I'll give you some examples of what modern progress has made possible for us. This is my supermarket - not such a big one. I want to say just a word about salad dressing: 175 salad dressings in my supermarket, if you don't count the 10 extra-virgin olive oils, and 12 balsamic vinegars, you could buy to make a very large number of your own salad dressings, in the off-chance that none of the 175 the store has on offer suits you.

So this is what the supermarket is like. And then you go to the consumer electronics store to set up a stereo system - speakers, CD player, tape player, tuner, amplifier - and in this one, single consumer electronics store, we can construct 6.5 million different stereo systems out of the components that are on offer in one store. You've got to admit, that's a lot of choice.

Work. We are blessed with the technology that enables us to work from anyplace on the planet. We can go to watch our kid play soccer, and we have our cellphone on one hip and our BlackBerry on our other hip and our laptop - presumably, on our laps.

And even if they're all shut off, every minute that we're watching our kid mutilate a soccer game, we are also asking ourselves: Should I answer this cellphone call? Should I respond to this email? Should I draft this letter? And even if the answer to the question is no, it's certainly going to make the experience of your kid's soccer game very different than it would have been.

So everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice. All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.

I'll give you one, very dramatic example of this: a study that was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual fund company, of about a million employees in about 2,000 different workplaces. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down 2 percent.

You offer 50 funds, 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it's so damn hard to decide which fund to choose, that you'll just put it off till tomorrow and of course, tomorrow never comes.

So that's one effect. The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. It's easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is, this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.

STEWART: We're here with Barry Schwartz, discussing his TED talk. I can remember when I was pregnant, and I was looking for a stroller. And I didn't know what to do. I don't know if I'm supposed to spend $800 on this thing with wheels that look like they're off an SUV, or if the $19 one I see at the Toys R - barn, kids' store ...


STEWART: ... is the - is the right thing. And I felt - I think "vulnerable" is the word.

SCHWARTZ: I have to tell you, this resonates incredibly because when our older daughter was pregnant with her first child, we went out to Seattle, where she lives, to help her buy a stroller. And we spent, I don't know, five hours in some, you know, baby gigantic store and of course, there was no perfect stroller.

Everything you looked at required you to make a trade-off between something and something: weight, convenience, sturdiness, safety - God knows what - and I think she'd still be standing there, trying to decide, if we basically hadn't bullied her into picking something.

So I - I watched exactly that happen, and you do feel taken advantage of. You feel like, this shouldn't be so hard. Who knows the secret that I don't know, and what is it?And this is a relatively trivial decision. Imagine it's, you know, where should I go to school? What profession should I pursue? It feels there like, the stakes are monumental.

STEWART: This is a good time to get back to the TED talk. Let's listen.


SCHWARTZ: Escalation of expectations - this hit me when I went to replace my jeans. I wear jeans almost all the time, so I went to replace my jeans after years and years of wearing these old ones. And I said I, you know, I want a pair of jeans, here's my size; and the shopkeeper said, do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? Do you want boot cut? Do you want tapered? Blah, blah, blah - on and on he went.

My jaw dropped and after I recovered, I said: I want the kind that used to be the only kind. He had no idea what that was.


SCHWARTZ: So I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store - truth - with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why? I wrote a whole book to try to explain this to myself. The reason is...


SCHWARTZ: The reason I felt worse is that with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be, went up. Adding options to people's lives can't help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that's going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they're good results.

Nowadays, the world we live in - we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation - the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.

The secret to happiness - this is what you all came for - the secret to happiness is low expectations.

STEWART: There's something a little sad about that.


SCHWARTZ: Let me tell you...

STEWART: There's something a little bit sad.

SCHWARTZ: When I give - when I deliver a line like that to young people, they're ready to kill me. I mean, I did it for dramatic effect. The secret to happiness is realistic, modest expectations.


SCHWARTZ: It's important for us to aspire for a tomorrow that's a little bit better than today, and it's important for parents to encourage that kind of aspiration in their kids. But we've long since passed the, tomorrow will be a little better than today. We've gotten to a point where we do expect everything to be perfect.

STEWART: There's an old joke: Expectations are resentments in training.


SCHWARTZ: Well, I would modify that slightly. I would say expectations are disappointments in training and there's - that's exactly the point. You know, people have this naive notion that we know ourselves well enough to know, sort of absolutely and objectively, how good something will be; that we are not slaves to comparison. We are not looking over our shoulders at what other people have; we're not looking over our shoulders at what we had yesterday. We just know, right? Well, that's folly.

We are always asking, how am I doing compared to the particular neighbor who I like - dislike the most, right? How am I doing compared to how I was doing yesterday? And how am I doing compared to how I expect to do?

STEWART: Let's get back to the talk.


SCHWARTZ: There's no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn't follow from that, that more choice is better than some choice. So to conclude, you're supposed to read this cartoon and being a sophisticated person, say oh, what does this fish know?

STEWART: Can you describe this cartoon, please?

SCHWARTZ: So it's your sort of stereotypical little goldfish bowl, with nothing in it. I think there's maybe a little toy castle.


SCHWARTZ: And there's a parent fish and a baby fish, and the caption reads: You can be anything you want to be. No limits. Right?



SCHWARTZ: And all you can say is wow, what a myopic fish that is. No limits. There's nothing going on in that fishbowl. And that was my first reaction and, you know, I think that's funny. But then I thought about it more.


SCHWARTZ: The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to the view that this fish knows something. Because the truth of the matter is that if you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don't have freedom; you have paralysis. If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction.

Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited - perhaps even for the fish; certainly, for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery and, I suspect, disaster. Thank you very much.

STEWART: Psychologist Barry Schwartz. You can find links to his research on choice and happiness, and watch another one of his TED talks online. Go to ted.npr.org.

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