Listen: Psychologist Barry Schwartz Shares the Secret to Happiness

Barry Schwartz

"There's no question that some choice is better than none," says Barry Schwartz, "but it doesn't follow from that, that more choice is better than some choice."

You have disabled JavaScript or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Download the latest version of Flash Player.
Audio: [11 min 58 sec] | Download

NPR/TED Radio Hour: The Pursuit of Happiness

Host: Allison Stewart

Being happy is a universal human yearning, but this simple goal often eludes us. If we're truly able to attain happiness, then how do we find it? ....

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.

Schwartz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life...

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance - where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before - are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression?

Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today's western world is actually making us miserable...

LISTEN to the full story.

(Below is a partial transcript from the TED Radio Hour with host Alison Stewart and guest Barry Schwartz, the Swarthmore College Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action.)

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...

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.

(Soundbite of an archived recording of a Schwartz "TED talk")

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.

(Soundbite of an archived recording of a Schwartz "TED talk")...

Stewart: 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 ...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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...

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

...

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...

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...