In the April issue of Scientific American, psychologist Prof Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College outlines the results of studies suggesting that much of the discontent experienced by people today stems from the sheer level of choice available.
One of the great social paradoxes of our time is that as personal wealth and consumer choice have increased, levels of personal happiness have failed to keep up. One possible reason is that this greater wealth has also brought about more choice - and thus more potential for making a dud choice, and moaning about all the opportunities missed as a result.
Prof Schwartz and his colleagues have identified two types of people: maximisers and satisificers.
The former always strive to make the best possible choice, while the latter is happy to settle for good enough. Given the difficulty of making the optimal choice - and the bitter cost of feeling one hasn't - it comes as no surprise to learn that Prof Schwartz has found that maximisers are prime candidates for depression.
He offers some tips on how to protect oneself from the agonies of choice, such as learning to accept "good enough" rather than striving to find the elusive "best", and not to dwell on what might have been. In essence, they all focus on the fact that the "badness" of choices is largely subjective, and we can thus avoid its consequences through a deliberate, conscious effort to accentuate the positive.
This is doubtless true, but Prof Schwartz makes no mention of the fact that mathematicians have pondered the same problem, and have developed methods for improving the chances of making optimal choices. An especially simple method is known as Colley's Rule, and applies in cases where one is faced with picking the best from a range of choices when there is no chance to go back on the decision - for example, when considering job offers.
According to Colley's Rule, never accept the first offer, but instead note its qualities and accept the first subsequent offer which beats it. It was recently proved that this both increases the chances of making the best choice, while minimising the chances of making the worst.
One might also adopt the policy of the American Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who when faced with the dessert menu in restaurants always chose the chocolate option. As Feynman saw it, while the other desserts might be better, they might not be. On the other hand, the chocolate option was always pretty acceptable - so why fret for ages over making a choice that might be wrong anyway?
Some might see this as the typically cold, rationalist approach of someone more interested in pondering weightier matters than what pud to have.
In the light of Prof Schwartz's research, however, Feynman's Rule may be an essential part of living a happier life.