Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Maximizing 2011-Making Choices to Improve Happiness

Do you have a friend that annoys you by constantly trying to seek out “The Best?” You know, the person that needs to read the menus of nine different restaurants before deciding to enter one? Or the person that needs to scope out the “scene” of a party before committing to it just in case there is another, better party down the road? Well, that annoying person may have been me.

My friend Mazz and I used to call ourselves “Life Maximizers,” reveling in our self-proclaimed title. When people asked us what this meant we proudly told them that we intended to suck the marrow out of life and enjoy each moment to its fullest. “To its fullest” often meant employing a rigorous decision tree to ensure we made optimal decisions for life’s daily choices. This ranged from what type of sandwich to order for lunch to what color to paint the bedroom, to where to spend New Year’s Eve. Although we patted ourselves on the back for our ability to always find the best solution, research actually showed that we may be less happy than those that are satisfied with a lesser choice.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this research in her book and blog, The Happiness Project. According to Rubin, Maximizers strive to make the optimal decision, unable to reach a conclusion until after they’ve examined every option to make the best possible choice. The counter to this is a Satisficer. A Satisficer quickly makes a decision once their base criteria are met, content with “Good Enough.” Interestingly, studies suggest that Satisficers tend to be happier than Maximizers. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz claims that Maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision. After the decision is made they’re often anxious about whether they did, in fact, make the best choice. In addition, their constant search for “The Best” often stresses out the others around them that quite enjoy “Good Enough.”

The Maximizer in me was disturbed by all this research. My actions were not taking me to “The Best” at all if they were making me LESS happy. In addition, I abhorred the thought that Mazz and I could be stressing out our friends by our constant quest for Bigger, Better, Faster. I decided to analyze our decision trees over the past holiday and see if we were indeed worse off than our Satisficer peers. The important decision facing us this time was none other than: Where to Spend New Year’s Eve.

New Years Eve is a stressful holiday, filled with anticipation and pressure that drives a Maximizer crazy. You must find the best holiday party, wear your finest dress (that you can still fit into), find someone attractive to kiss at midnight (or be drunk enough to find them attractive), and magically unearth a resolution that is not only revolutionary, but also one you can stick to. Hoping to avoid some of the holiday stress, Mazz and I decided to skip town. There weren’t many people in the city I felt like kissing, and let’s face it, my previous Christmas cookie plate indulgences made fitting into any dress challenging. We had six days, an old car, and a limited budget. It was time to take the road less traveled and seek out a low key destination. In a complicated Google map analysis we measured all options against the following criteria: cheap, warm, and reachable by automobile. Baja, Mexico won by a landslide. It had sun, $20 lodging, and amazing fish tacos. We knew we had made the best choice and created Mexico playlists to sing along to on the drive down. However, on day three of our Mexico journey something happened that made us stop singing and doubt our decision; a cold, miserable wet descended upon us. This wasn’t our Mexico plan! Weather.com had tricked us! Instead of the warm 70-degree blue skies we had been promised, we were confronted with 50-degree torrential rain that flooded the roads. Our little Honda acted more like a boat than a car as we navigated the seas of Ruta 1.

Mazz looked at me after a serious hydroplane incident. “Heidi,” she said, “There must be a better option.”

I couldn’t deny the Maximizer in me.

“Okay,” I said. “Pull over. Let’s list out all of our options and choose the best decision for the remainder of our holiday.”

We sat down in a café to enjoy hot cocoa and create a pro/con list.

1. Transform to a Satisficer: Stay in desolate, rainy Mexico and wait for the sun to appear
Pro: Easiest solution, plus we had a deck of cards and multiple books to amuse us
Con: We were sick of rummy. And we knew there were other places where it wasn’t raining!

2. Head up Highway 1 back to Cali. Spend a night in Esalen institute in Big Sur (I’m a member) and go into the Hot Springs with naked hippies
Pro: Interesting story to share with our peers
Con: Seeing each other naked

3. Go to Vegas and gamble
Pro: Guaranteed fun
Con: Guaranteed money trap that we couldn’t afford, nor have the willpower to deny

4. Go to Tahoe and ski
Pro: The fresh snow was making for epic skiing
Con: Long drive to get there, cold weather upon arrival

After serious debate we decided upon Tahoe and drummed up courage for the long drive back north through wet roads. We had 12 hours to San Francisco and another 4 to Tahoe. Being a Maximizer wasn’t easy. And the drive was only part of the effort.

We needed to make Tahoe hotel reservations. As it was New Year’s Eve, everything was booked, including our friends’ sofas where we could crash. I scanned craigslist.com for last minute cancellations. Eureka-I found one! I hastily called from the passenger seat.

“Yes, it is still available,” said the man on the phone. “However I do have others interested so I’d need payment now.” I decided to discuss the option with Mazz first. It was available but it was located quite far from “The Best” ski resort. This lodging was situated by a different, less optimal ski run.

“Let me do another scan to make sure there isn’t something better out there,” said Mazz. We switched driving positions and she manned her smart phone enabled with “The Best” searching capabilities. After a two hour search she came up empty handed except for an expensive studio room with a full size Murphy bed. The studio was also in a suboptimal location, 30 minutes from “The Best” ski resort.

I called the man back to tell him we’d take his place, the better choice.

“Sorry, but I just rented it five minutes ago.”

Ack. I was mad at our Maximizer indecision. Now Mazz and I were bound to share a small bed that came out of the wall, likely getting stuck in it as it folded up on us in the middle of the night.

However it was better than sleeping in the car. We reserved the Murphy bed right away.

We finally reached Lake Tahoe just in time to ski the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. The snow was fluffy and light, our five layers kept us warm, and multiple beverages awaited us at the bars once the lifts closed. Our friends greeted us with warm embraces. Our trek from Mexico earned us rounds, conversation, and the confirmation that our long drive was worth it-we had made the best choice! However we still had another choice—where to spend the evening as the year changed to 2011. All of our friends had different plans, spread out across Tahoe’s north shore. Some were going to cabin parties. Others were hitting ski town bars. There were multiple organized events on the resort premises. The altitude and beer had gone to our heads…..we couldn’t make a decision. I didn’t want to subject our friends to our Maximizer pro-con list so I decided to stall.

“We’ll just go back to the Murphy bed, take a nap, and re-emerge with a plan,” I told Mazz.

“That’s too far away,” said a man at the bar that had been listening to our location dilemma. “Just crash in my hotel room in the resort and then go back out again.”

We didn’t need to be Maximizers to know that wasn’t the optimal choice.

Thus, Mazz and I braved snow and ice to get back to our hotel. We were exhausted after driving, skiing, drinking, and warding off lonely ski bums. We arranged ourselves on the pull out, set an alarm and vowed to weigh the decisions and make a choice later. At 10.30 the alarm went off. We looked at each other. Our list of options was paralyzing. We had no energy to make a decision and were too fearful that whatever decision we made wouldn’t be worth the trek back out into the cold. Plus changing out of my long johns and wool socks into a cute dress in 10 degree weather seemed plain stupid.

And thus, two self-proclaimed Maximizers transformed to Satisficers for the night. We stayed in our long johns, turned on the television, curled up in a wall bed, and happily rang in the New Year without even one sip of champagne.

We woke up early in the morning amazed by our lack of disappointment. There was fresh snow to ski (hangover free) and another evening to enjoy. I was quite eager for both the day and the New Year ahead of us.   Perhaps the research was all wrong. Perhaps the key to being happy as a Maximizer was knowing when to embrace a bit of Satisficer.  A happy Maximizer seeks the best, but also maintains a positive state of mind regardless of the outcome.  And a happy Maximizer understands that there may be different “The Best” outcomes depending upon the situation.  Staying put in flannel pajamas may be one of them. However, now fully rested I felt full of energy, ready to get out of the pajamas and seize life.  2011 was full of opportunity and I didn’t want to stay complacent in a Murphy bed settling for “Good Enough.”

“So what should we do tonight after skiing?” I asked Mazz as I put on my multiple layers of jackets.

She smiled, “Well, I have already made a list of options for us…..”

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes … and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

4 Discussions on
“Maximizing 2011-Making Choices to Improve Happiness”
  • Brilliant. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. Selecting the “right tool for the job” (ie – when to fret over perfection or just go with the flow) is itself a challenging decision, n’est-ce pas? I’ve always thought that providing an optimal structure to such decisions while leaving the details flexible enough to work themselves out was a good balance. And, how do I sign up for a road trip – sounds like you know how to do it right! 🙂

  • love it! reminds me of nights of bar marathon… leaving after a quick look due to lack of talent… my friend steph used to ask if she should wear her running shoes when we go out ; )

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