I admit that I was planning to skip right over the A in PERMA – I’ve found that Davidson students tend to be experts at finding opportunities to pursue accomplishment and achievement! However, after hearing that many of you were looking forward to learning more about this last element of well-being, I wanted to make sure you were not disappointed!
You might find today’s exercise challenging, because many of you value “doing your best” – whether you’re working on academics, extracurriculars, or caring for people in your community, Davidson students tend to give (at least!) 100%. However, a growing body of literature suggests that always doing your best isn’t necessarily the best for you – and, paradoxically, might even lead to worse outcomes.
When it comes to making decisions, we can characterize strategies in two ways:
- Maximizing involves seeking the best option available across a wide range of domains. For example, if you are buying a car, you might want to find a car with the lowest price, the best fuel efficiency, the most reliable safety ratings, the most convenient purchase options, the best stereo system, in your favorite color. Maximizers seek out as much information as possible in order to make optimal choices.
- Satisficing involves determining the standards that are important to you and your threshold for what is acceptable in those domains, then choosing the first option that meets your standards in all of these areas. Rather than deliberately seeking out “the best,” satisficers determine their standards (which may be quite high!) and select the first option that meets these standards. In our car example, a satisficer might decide that they want a blue or green SUV that is less than 5 years old, has less than 75K miles on it, and costs under $15,000. If they found a car that met these criteria – they’d purchase it!
Counterintuitively, by trying to find “the best” option, maximizers often experience worse outcomes than satisficers. A series of studies by Barry Schwartz and colleagues found that people who report a tendency to maximize are:
- Less happy than satisficers.
- More likely to be depressed.
- More likely to regret their choices.
- More likely to compare themselves to others, and more strongly affected by social comparison.
The evidence that maximizers make better choices than satisficers is mixed. Some studies have found that “objective” outcomes are better for maximizers – for example, maximizing college seniors secured jobs with initial salaries approximately 20% higher than those of their maximizing peers. However, they reported much higher negative affect throughout the job search process, and were less satisfied with the outcome of their job search. Other studies have found that maximizers’ decision-making strategies could lead to less favorable outcomes; for example, earning less money in an experimental gambling task.
For today’s exercise, I encourage you to think about what it means to “achieve” a goal – and to deliberately practice what has been called “robust satisficing.”
Today’s Exercise: Choosing “Good Enough”
Regardless of whether your typical strategy is to be a maximizer or a satisficer, you can learn to practice satisficing – and reap the benefits! For today’s exercise, I encourage you to identify one task (or decision) to practice deliberately satisficing.
- Take a look at your to-do list. Choose one task to practice satisficing.
- Write down your goal(s) for the task you select. In advance, decide what standard(s) you need to meet before you will consider the task “done.”
- Start your task, and check in regularly to assess whether you have met the standard(s) you identified. When you have accomplished this – stop! (Even if you could keep doing more.)
Iyengar, S. S., Wells, R. E., & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing better but feeling worse: Looking for the “best” job undermines satisfaction. Psychological Science, 17(2), 143-150. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01677.x
Abstract: Expanding upon Simon’s (1955) seminal theory, this investigation compared the choice-making strategies of maximizers and satisficers, finding that maximizing tendencies, although positively correlated with objectively better decision outcomes, are also associated with more negative subjective evaluations of these decision outcomes. Specifically, in the fall of their final year in school, students were administered a scale that measured maximizing tendencies and were then followed over the course of the year as they searched for jobs. Students with high maximizing tendencies secured jobs with 20% higher starting salaries than did students with low maximizing tendencies. However, maximizers were less satisfied than satisficers with the jobs they obtained, and experienced more negative affect throughout the job-search process. These effects were mediated by maximizers’ greater reliance on external sources of information and their fixation on realized and unrealized options during the search and selection process.