Satisificers v. maximizers: how to abandon expectations and get happier.

I’ve always been a girl of rather high expectations. This unfortunate personality trait has caused more disappointments than I can possibly recount.

The holidays are a perfect example. I LOVE the holidays. Always have. Because I adore them so, I’ve spent countless hours constructing castles in the clouds that have almost always fallen short of my absurdly high expectations. My birthday, Christmas, Halloween — you name it, I’ve spent it in tears.

These days, I try to enjoy what comes, no matter how low key or unassuming. I’ve made a conscious effort to let go of that Clark Griswold-esque obsession with perfection. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes it’s the unexpected imperfections that make our lives most memorable.

Frankly, expectations are a heavy burden that I no longer want to carry. Generally, they’re programmed into us by society, past experience, our parents, et al. They’re the things we think we’re SUPPOSED to do or have or be. And “supposed to” is not a path to anywhere I want to go.

It’s not that I believe in lowering your expectations. That connotes defeat and “settling” (another concept I’m entirely against). I believe, instead, in trying to abandon expectations altogether.

Not an easy task, I grant you.

But to foster our own happiness and well being, I’ve learned that it’s best to approach each moment with a fresh, open-hearted attitude (versus carrying around the weight of preconceived notions).

Recently, I learned about two terms (coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College) that sum up this whole managed-expectations concept. These are as follows:

Maximizer: A person who tries to squeeze all the pleasure and awesomeness they can out of every moment and experience. IE, they attempt to maximize everything.

Satisficer: A person who feels content with their choices as long as they pass a basic threshold of acceptability.

As you might imagine, research has found Maximizers report lower levels of happiness and optimism and higher levels of depression than their Satisficer counterparts. Maximizers are, basically, perfectionists. And as we know, perfectionism is really bad news. You’ve probably known more than a few of each — Maximizers are those impossible to please people, while Satisficers are the laidback folks that make your life way easier.

The idea of Satisficing may sound a bit sad to people who are programmed for perfectionism. But dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that Satisficers are people who find joy in all things — not just the things that meet their narrow-minded idea of acceptability.

But even if we’re Maximizers by nature, it is possible to cultivate our Satisficer side.

Here’s how to abandon expectations (or move in that direction, anyway) and boost your happiness:

  • Limit your decisions. Instead of obsessing over the six brands of hummus at the grocery store, pick one you like and stick with it. Our society leads us to believe that more choices = better, but we tend to waste mental energy on too many unimportant things. As sociologist Christine Carter writes, “We all have a limited capacity for decision-making in any given day. Eventually this capacity fades, and with it the quality of the decisions we make, and our self-discipline in general. In other words, making a lot of decisions, even small ones, tires us out.”
  • Look for joy in the little things. There are so many things to cherish and appreciate. As you go about your day, make a conscious effort to see and acknowledge these things. Write them down. Give thanks. Keep a gratitude jar or journal. When you’re grateful for all you’ve got, you become less obsessed with having more or seeking better.
  • Be resolved to satisfaction. Say you’re picking a lunch dish from a 10-page menu. Maximizers could easily obsess, spending 20 minutes trying to pick the “perfect” item. Instead, be resolved to choose the first dish that appeals to you, and tell yourself you’ll be satisfied. Don’t allow your brain to meander down the “what if” path. Use a little mental discipline and cultivate a sense of satisfaction. Once you’re made your decision, put your attention on the positive aspects of whatever you choose. This is a conscious decision.
  • Open yourself up. A lot of Satisficing involves being open to what’s new and different and seemingly imperfect. This doesn’t mean torturing yourself with 10 Billion options in any given situation — it means staying open to what might be outside the realm of your presuppositions.  Life is often unpredictable, but it’s that unpredictability that brings the greatest joy and wonder. Besides, isn’t allowing yourself to be surprised way more fun than always trying to play out a rote, memorized routine? Heck. Yes.


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