The happiest life?

February 26, 2008

Right before I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I had a conversation with one of the poets on the faculty about life after college. She explained her path after graduation with a quote that I believe she attributed to Simone Weil: “The happiest life is the one with no choices.” (Fortunately for her, having no choices meant that she only got into Iowa… a no choice I think most of us would be happy to have!)

That thought has stuck with me, not as a kind of guiding principle or anything, but as a check to my constant urge to keep my options open, even though there are costs to doing so.

Turns out, I am not alone. See John Tierney’s Findings for today: The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors:

The next time you’re juggling options — which friend to see, which house to buy, which career to pursue — try asking yourself this question: What would Xiang Yu do?

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships.

That’s right, no retreat for that army, you have no ships. You must go forward. The piece goes on to explain that behavior researchers have found that people are kind of pathological about keeping doors open, even when there is no rational reason to do so. Dan Ariely, the author of the book Tierney is drawing this from, has his own story of useless door opening:

When he was trying to decide between job offers from M.I.T. and Stanford, he recalls, within a week or two it was clear that he and his family would be more or less equally happy in either place. But he dragged out the process for months because he became so obsessed with weighing the options.

Ah that’s so familiar! Well, not the MIT and Stanford part, but I remember agonizing over my first job after college. I had to choose between two, and there were no clear reasons why one or the other would be best (they both had major drawbacks). I literally made myself ill in the course of a day from worrying about it too much. Of late, the main agony has been, stick with the professional path I’m on or make a drastic change… and I do have to say that in the last month or so, as I’ve become more focused on taking the next step in the path I’m on I’ve felt less need to worry about the paths I’m not on. And it’s felt good.

Of course, it’s hard to tell the difference between obsessive door opening and genuine questions about what the best choice is. I’m not opposed to making a commitment, I don’t think. I just have no idea which would be the right one to make, or if there even is a “right” one, and the pressure to at least try before I get too entrenched in one at times feels overwhelming. On the other hand, it’s a lot of wasted energy that could have gotten me well down any one of them if I had just let the others go.


Well, I did play the game. The first time, I opened 14 doors and scored about 1600 points. The second time, I opened 4 doors and scored almost twice as many.


One Response to “The happiest life?”

  1. Amy Says:

    I also played the door game, but killed at it, scoring something like 2800 points just by clicking 1 door over and over again. 🙂

    I agree that closing doors can be good for you. Even when you do choose between two equally good options, you tend afterwards to wonder what would have happened if you’d chosen differently.

    My tendency has always been to leap then look, and not look back, and it’s never served me wrong. It’s led to some of the best adventures of my life. I recommend everyone act recklessly. But no one ever listens. 🙂

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