How to Be Happy: Stop Making So Many Decisions, Neuroscientist Says

Making decisions is hard. Spencer Platt/Getty

Making choices is hard. That would be why researcher Moran Cerf has eliminated it from his life. As a rule, he always chooses the second menu item at a restaurant.

This is informed by his research in neuroeconomics (a somewhat new, divisive field) at Northwestern University. As Business Insider describes, Cerf has extended his ideas (which draw on some controversial ideas in psychology, including ego depletion) out into a piece of advice that, to maximize happiness, people should “build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody traits they prefer.”  

On an intuitive level, Cerf’s idea makes sense: many choices people make are the product of social pressures and the inputs of trusted people around them. One example Cerf furnishes is that, in addition to consistently ordering the second menu item, he never picks where to eat. Rather, he limits his decision to his dining partner—which friend he plans to eat with, presumably one he trusts—and always lets them pick.

While it's unclear what, if any, scientific principles underlie those pieces of advice, there is no shortage of research showing that choice can sometimes feel more confusing than liberating. An example from Quanta posits: if you have a clear love of Snickers, choosing that over an Almond Joy or a Milky Way should be a no-brainer. And, as an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Paul Glimcher at NYU shows, most of the time it is.

Until you introduce more choice.

When the participants were offered three candy bars (Snickers, Milky Way, and Almond Joy) they had no problem picking their favorite, but when they were given the option of one among 20, including Snickers, they would sometimes stray from their preference. When the choices were taken away in later trials, the participants would wonder what caused them to make such a clearly bad decision.

As Quanta details, according to a model called “divisive normalization, which has gained some traction, the way the brain encodes choices has a lot to do with how it values all its options. So if you have two things that are clearly distinct, brain areas involved in decision making fire in a pattern that makes the decision clear. When the choices are comparable, the brain does its best to focus on the distinctions between the two, but more choice crowds that out.