On Choices, Decisions, and Happiness

The fable of Buridan’s donkey tells of a donkey who is profoundly hungry.  When put in the exact midpoint between a two identical piles of hay, the donkey was unable to choose which one it wanted and eventually dies of hunger.  Ironically, if the donkey had only one and not two piles of hay to choose from, its life would have been easier (and longer).  Obviously, people are smarter than Buridan’s donkey – are we?  Unfortunately, sometimes we are so preoccupied with making the single best decision that we end up suffering more from the agony of indecisiveness than we do enjoying benefits of the right decision.

From http://peterzimmer.eu/

In sections of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt discusses the concept of the “right decision” by shifting the focus to within the self rather than on the decisions themselves.  That is, the acceptance of those decisions makes a decision “right.”  In fact, Chapter 2 opens with the quote, The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius.  The serenity prayer in various types of faith that has been circulating for generations prior to becoming a cornerstone of Alcoholic Anonymous also highlights the same sentiments that peace is not found without the self but built from within.  The format cited by Wikipedia is replicated below:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Being happy with the choices we have made is incredibly difficult.  It is also an active research topic of social scientists and psychologists.  Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness explores the ironic paradox of how the process of making decisions – not the objective characteristics of the decision itself – creates happiness.   In one study, Dan Gilbert offered the students in a photography class an enlarged print of two of each student’s favorite works, and asks them to keep one.  In one group, the students were told that the decision is final.  In the second group, the students were offered the chance to change their choice within a few days.  He then asked everyone to rank how much they like the picture they ended up keeping.  The remarkable thing is that in both cases, all students had the same objective outcome – they took home an enlarged print of their favorite work.

Results? He found that (1) before the course started, most students would prefer to have a chance to regret their choices, and (2) those that could NOT change their choices ended up happier.  In fact, some students in the “can change” group were sufficiently ambivalent over their two favorite photographs that they spend the entire time agonizing over whether to regret their choice and get the other one instead.  The choice between the two was so difficult they ended up disliking the final outcome regardless of which one they had chosen.  They were plagued by the same indecisiveness that killed Buridan’s donkey.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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