Why ‘good enough’ can be better for your decisions and mental health

By https://www.sandiegopsychiatricsociety.org/author
May 24, 2024

The constant pursuit of ‘perfect’ choices can make you less happy and more anxious.

The Washington Post 

By Jamie Friedlander Serrano

May 3, 2024

I’m driving my 3-year-old daughter, Penny, to preschool. She asks me a question, but I’m distracted. I’m pondering whether I should try a new drink at Starbucks after I drop her off, or stick with my go-to soy latte. Then, I think about the conversation my husband and I had the night before about whether to send our kids to private or public school.

“Can we have Mommy-Penny time when you pick me up from school?” she repeats, a reference to the special time we sometimes spend together without her little sister. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied, I could have heard her sweet request the first time around.


Each day, we are inundated with choices. Some are small — like our morning coffee order — while others are big, such as where to send our children to school. With an abundance of options and information at our fingertips today, it would make sense that the best decisions come from thorough, detailed analysis, right?

Wrong.

Decades’ worth of psychological research suggests the opposite. In fact, people who make “good enough” decisions, instead of “perfect” ones, are often happier.


It has been estimated that American adults make thousands of choices a day. In a world of near-endless options and information, it’s clear that humans don’t have the time or cognitive resources to make a perfect decision in every case.

“The human mind just doesn’t have enough capacity to do that,” says Valerie Reyna, a professor and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research at Cornell University.

When it comes to making decisions, people often take one of two approaches: maximizing, or “satisficing,” a term coined by political scientist Herbert Simon that combines “satisfy” and “suffice.”

“Maximizers want to make the best decision,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Satisficers want to make the ‘good enough’ decision.”

What does 'good enough' look like?

“Good enough” decisions aren’t haphazard, but they strike a key balance. Bad, poorly thought-out decisions are often rushed or emotionally driven. “Maximized” decisions, at the other extreme, are often time-consuming and draining, to the point where they lead to rumination or regret.

Good enough decisions are thought-out. But once something clearly meets your needs, you decide that’s good enough and call it a day.

A maximizer, for example, might spend two hours looking for the perfect pair of headphones online. They’ll meticulously scan the reviews and compare features. A satisficer simply clicks “buy” once they’ve found a pair that meets their needs.

“In a world with essentially unlimited options, the satisficer can pull the trigger,” says Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” “The maximizer can’t pull the trigger until every option has been examined.”


Maximizers tend to be less satisfied with their lives, less optimistic and more depressed than satisficers, according to Schwartz’s research. Maximizers also take longer to recover from bad decisions, they ruminate more, they savor positive events less, they don’t cope as well with negative events, and they’re more prone to regret.

When we choose from a limited set of options, say three pairs of socks, we can feel like we did the best we could, Schwartz says. But when the option set becomes seemingly unlimited (a quick Amazon search for socks produces 80,000 results), it’s harder, especially when there are options you didn’t examine, he says. This is why maximizers, who are so focused on finding the best option, often feel more regret than satisficers.

Maximizers may also experience “analysis paralysis,” says Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at NYU Langone Health.

For example, someone might spend hours looking at flights, then not buy a ticket because they think a better option might show up the next day. “Then, you’re not even doing the thing you need to do, which ends up causing more stress and anxiety,” Gallagher says.

There’s a point at which the number of choices available to us becomes detrimental instead of beneficial, Schwartz says.

In one study, Stanford University researchers gave people either six or 24 jam samples to pick from at a high-end grocery store. Those shown 24 samples made a purchase only 3 percent of the time. Those given six options made a purchase nearly 30 percent of the time.

The study “showed that when you give people too many choices, it doesn’t liberate them,” says Schwartz, who is a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “It paralyzes them.”

5 tips for better decision-making

Some decisions — like which school to send our children to — are worth our time and deliberation. But others are not. Here’s some guidance on how to make decisions more easily.

Go all in. If you think a decision is reversible, you won’t do the work required to feel content with it, Schwartz says.

  • Let’s say you bought a dress you can’t return. You’ll likely make yourself find things to like about it. “I don’t think this is something people do consciously or deliberately, [but] when there’s no going back, you make the best of what you have,” Schwartz says. “When there is going back, you go back.”

Find your niche. You don’t need to be a satisficer for every decision. Maximizing occasionally is okay, so long as it’s something you’re passionate about.

  • “If there are certain things you really love to get elbow-deep in, that’s fine,” Schwartz says. “Just don’t do that with everything, because that’s a recipe for paralysis and misery.”

Automate parts of your day. Most little decisions are relatively insignificant, yet they take up mental energy that could be spent on more worthwhile pursuits.

  • Reduce your total number of daily decisions. Reyna recommends making what she called “policy decisions for yourself.” Instead of debating whether to exercise each morning, for instance, decide to always run at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays.

Set limits. Those who lean toward maximizing can benefit from setting constraints on their decision-making, Gallagher says.

  • For example, give yourself only 15 minutes to search for a new pair of headphones online. Or, find a resource you trust and always research products there.

Don’t get lost in the weeds. Research has shown that, in addition to quantity of information analyzed, the quality of your insights is crucial.

  • Reyna and her colleagues developed “fuzzy-trace theory,” which found that people who are able to get the gist, or essence, of information often make better decisions than those who spend a lot of time and energy analyzing surface details. “What we’ve shown is that a lot of very healthy decisions are made using the gist over the details,” Reyna says. ​

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