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Category: Positive Psychology

The Agony of Choice: Can We have Too Much of Good Thing?

Research shows that the amount of positive emotion we create and maintain is related to how much choice we believe we have in our lives.  Of equal importance with regards our happiness is how we manage our thinking in relation to the decisions we make with regards the choices we believe we have.

For example, in a fascinating series of projects participants offered the opportunity of buying food products were far more likely to buy one of the products on offer when they had only 6 samples to choose from in contrast to having the option of choosing between 24 – 30 (Iyengar & Lepper 2000).  In another interesting example, individuals on being asked to choose a meaningful photograph of their time at university when allowed just a minute before making their choice reported being happier with their choice a year later then individuals who were given the opportunity of waiting 12 weeks before making their choice (cited by Style, 2011).

People, when it comes to the choices they make tend, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz to be either maximisers or satisfiers (Schwartz & Ward, 2004).  Maximisers invest a great deal of time weighing up the options available to them before they make their decision – they maximise, in other words the choices available to them.  A maximiser wanting to buy a new pair of jeans will visit a multitude of different shops, will try on several different pairs of jeans and will compare and contrast what’s on offer in relation to style, price and comfort before deciding which pair to buy.  This may or not be significant as the person in question is only buying a pair of jeans but consider for a moment just how problematic the maximisers mind-set could be when it comes to choosing say, which job offer to accept, which house to buy, which part of the country to live in, what type of car to buy, whether to marry and have children or not, where to go on holiday, and so on.  Having a great of deal of choice in matters such as these may appear a good thing but it can its drawbacks.   Maximisers can for example, waste a great deal of time deciding what choice they should make and having made that choice will invariably experience a great deal of stress and anxiety worrying all the time about whether they have made the right choice or not.  This in turn can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and regret.  Needless to say maximisers are rarely satisfying.

Satisfiers, by comparison take a much more pragmatic approach to life – they are far more likely to make choices based on what they actually need not on what they think they need, are happy with having just a few options open to them and are often content with the choices they make.

Maximisers tend to be perfectionist in their thinking, worry a great deal about what others think of them, have unrealistic expectations both for themselves and others, and are constantly on the lookout for something better – what they obtain is never good enough.  Satisfiers, by comparison, are easily pleased, they are grateful for what they have especially the simply things in life.  For them ‘good enough’ is always ‘good enough’, they rarely compare themselves to others, have realistic expectations for themselves and others and always appreciate what they’ve got – as a result satisfiers tend to be much happier then maximisers.  They may not be as wealthy, or possess as much in material terms as the maximiser but they are invariably better off in terms of their well-being.

Having choice and the time to choose needn’t always be a bad thing but it’s unlikely to have much of an influence on the quality of your life.  Maximisers, for example are not very good at understanding what is genuinely good for their well-being or what will bring them a genuine sense of satisfaction and achievement both immediately and in the long term hence the amount of anxiety, shame, and guilt they experience (ibid. p. 101).

Choice, as Schwartz says is a paradox (Schwartz, 2005).  We have a tendency to want more choice and yet the choices we are offered have a tendency to cause us more harm than good.  Having a multitude of food items to choose from when visiting a massive out-of-town supermarket may appear beneficial but can actually be problematic; firstly, we can waste an unbelievable amount of time trying to decide what to buy, worry about whether we have made the right decision or not and invariably end up buying far more food then we actually need.  We may think we want all the food we buy when we visit the supermarket but do we really need all that food? I don’t think so.

Most of us will experience the agony of choice at some point – believing that we really, really want something badly only to find that we quickly become bored or uninterested in the very thing we desired so much.  Maxmisers will have a wardrobe full of shoes and bags they thought they wanted only to find that once obtained ‘that small object of desire’ is no longer desirable.

So, do you recognise yourself as a maximiser or a satisfier?  If you are a maximiser than try the following:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others, don’t hanker after what other people have, ditch your perfectionist thinking and accept that ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough.’
  • Have high expectations by all means but make sure your expectations are realistic and well within your capabilities – it’s good to enjoy a challenge but whatever you want and whatever you need must be within your grasp.
  • Celebrate what you have, be grateful for the small things in life, take your time and appreciate what you have.
  • Don’t overly concern yourself with the choices on offer – make a decision and stick to it.

Now, I have a choice to make.  Do I write another blog post or switch off my laptop and do something different.  Whatever choice I make I’m sure it will the right one.

All the best and enjoy the choices you make.




Iyengar, S.S., & Lepper, M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 79 (6), 995 – 1006.

Schwartz, B., & Ward, A. (2004).  Doing better but feeling worse: The paradox of choice. In P.A. Linley & S. Joseph (eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 86 – 104.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More. New York: Harper Perrenial.

Style, C. (2011). Change Your Life with Positive Psychology.  Harlow: Pearson Education.


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Be a Thought Recycler

We all care about the environment don’t we? We don’t want to mess it up and so we work really hard keeping it clean and tidy.  We manage our waste and rubbish well getting rid of what we don’t want and recycling what we can.

But what about ourselves? If only we could manage our thoughts the way we manage our rubbish and waste.

If you could recycle your rubbishy thoughts the way you recycle your actual rubbish what kind of a difference would that make to you?  Go on, give it a go, recycle your thoughts, turn them around, change them, improve them, make them bigger and better.  Recycle your negative thoughts – turn them in something more positive and beneficial.

Your mind, after all is like most of your rubbish – it’s plastic.  That means it malleable – you can bend it, shape it and change it.  Go on, do it now – be a mind recycler.

Enjoy your day.


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Power on the Hour


Whatever you do don’t think of a big piece of chocolate cake – a lovely big piece of chocolate cake with a nice blob of vanilla ice cream melting over the top .  What happened? You found yourself thinking of a big piece of chocolate cake didn’t you?

The fact of the matter is we can’t stop ourselves thinking – we can try but we simply can’t do it.

So, we can’t stop ourselves thinking but what we do with the thoughts that pop into our heads is definitely something we have a choice over – we can either hang-on to the thoughts that pop into our head (if we want to), or we can simply let them go.  It’s really up to us – it’s a personal choice each and every one of us can make.

Let’s say for example that an unhelpful, negative, thought such as; “I’m rubbish at maths” pops into my head.  I may, of course choose to keep this thought – I can brood, ruminate and dwell upon this thought even though I know that doing so will probably make me feel worse or I can dismiss it immediately and replace it with something more helpful and beneficial such as; “Maths may be a challenge for me but I can improve simply by working hard, putting in the effort and persisting until I get the results I’m looking for.”

The first thought, “I’m rubbish at maths” apart from being negative is rigid, inflexible and offers no possibility of change unlike the second thought, “Maths may be a challenge for me but I can improve simply by working hard, putting in the effort and persisting until I get the results I’m looking for” which by contrast suggests a positive, optimistic, empowering way forward.

Positive thinking is clearly of value but what really makes a difference is learning to think positive, empowering thoughts consistently and continuously throughout each and every day.  It can certainly help starting the day by asking ourselves an empowering question such as; “What kind of day do I want to have today?” And it can certainly help to end the day reflecting on the positive thoughts, feelings and experiences we have had but why stop there – why just start and end the day positively, why not get into the habit of thinking positively and optimistically consistently and continuously throughout the day – why not get into the habit of creating positive, helpful thoughts on the hour every hour.  I call this your POWER on the HOUR.  In time the habit of thinking beneficial thoughts constantly and continuously will become your default way of being and who knows, in time those pesky little nuisance thoughts may stop all together.

With warm wishes



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Goal-Setting, Values and Motivation


Goal-Setting and Knowing What You Want

Goal-setting orientates us towards what we want, need and desire – it moves us from where we are (point A) to where we want to be (route B).  Motivation underpins goal-setting – it is the driving force that gets us moving and keeps us going until we have reached the desired outcome.

However, simply wanting or needing something is not within itself enough. In order for us to achieve our goals a number of conditions need to be met – we need, for example to be clear about what it is we want or believe we need.  We also need to know that we can achieve the goal we have in mind and have a clear indication of when the goal will be achieved.

Another defining characteristic of the goal-setting process is that it comes to a conclusion when the goal is achieved.  Examples of the kind of goals we may set ourselves might include running our first marathon, losing 2 kg of body fat, moving to a bigger house, gaining a promotion at work, starting a family, learning to drive, completing a course of study, travelling to different parts of the world, and so on.  The goal of running our first marathon will be achieved the moment we cross the finish line, the goal of learning to drive is accomplished the day we pass our driving test and so on.

Values – the Driving Force of Your Life

Values are different from goals insofar as a value is not finite, it is not achieved at some specific point in time as is the case with a goal.  Excellence, courage, resilience, determination, kindness, forgiveness are, for example values.  Values represents what’s important to us – our values also support our motivation.  Our values motivate us – they motivate us to set the goal in the first place and, more importantly they keep us going even when the going gets tough.

Our success in life is also measured by the extent in which we live our values – we may or may not achieve our goals but as long as we are living our values we will be going in the right direction.  We should, in fact, measure our success in life not by the extent in which we have achieved our goals but by the extent we are living our values.  Let’s say, for argument sake I set myself the goal of running the London marathon in under four hours thirty minutes and I cross the finish line in four hours and twenty-two minutes.  My goal has been achieved – that’s it, I’ve done it and I’ve got the medal, the certificate, the goody bag and the ‘T’ shirt to prove it (as well as the blisters and the nipple rash).  I can tick that particular achievement off my bucket list and set myself another goal.  However, underpinning my achievement were a specific set of values.  These values included courage, determination, resilience, fitness, pride, camaraderie, persistence, effort, hard-work, fun, challenge, amongst others.  However, values such as these are never fully achieved as such – there will never come a time in my life when these values cease to be of importance me.  I won’t stop becoming determined just because I ran a marathon.  Our values stay with us throughout our lives – they are the driving force of our life.

You may also find that the same values underpin and motivate you with regards a number of goals.  If determination is a value of yours then you will almost certainly show determination in most areas of your life – you will show determination in the way you do your job, how you spend your leisure time, in the way you relate to your family, friends, and so on.

Motivation and the Commitment to Change

People will say they want to change some aspect of their life but they will also say that they struggle to engage in the process of change due to a lack of motivation.  They may say they lack motivation but this is simply not the case.  We are all motivated – it’s just a question of where we want to put our mental and physical energy.  When I was teacher I often heard colleagues complain that their learners lacked motivation but the learners they were referring to where motivated – they just weren’t motivated to do what the teacher wanted them to do!  A teenager may appear bored and disengaged in an English or Maths class and yet that same teenager will work as hard as they possible can during football training, while learning to DJ or rap, mastering a video game, amongst other things.

Any discussion of motivation would benefit from an exploration of what the word actually means.  The word literally means to ‘stimulate towards action, to incite or impel.’  The process begins with the motive, desire, or inclination to do something – motivation is, more specifically the process of acting upon that motive.  In other words, if you want, desire or need something badly enough then you will be motivated to get it.  Understanding motivation as the desire to achieve can, however, be problematic insofar as people my feel they have to wait until they feel motivated to lose weight, get fit, find a new job, start a new relationship, and so on but this can be problematic. In other words, if you wait until you feel motivated to get going then you could be waiting an awful long time.  In other words, don’t have to wait until you feel motivated before you get yourself going – you just need to set yourself a goal, identify the values that underpin the goal, commit yourself to achieving it and then engage in the process through taking positive, constructive action.  Of course, any goal worth achieving is going to be a challenge and being challenged means stepping outside your comfort zone and stepping outside your comfort zone will, by implication mean experiencing a certain amount of discomfort.  Most of us would rather experience pleasure than pain so it’s only natural that people will want to avoid discomfort.  Imagine for a moment that it’s 6:00 in the morning on a cold, wet Sunday in the middle of winter and you are offered a choice – you can either have a lie in or go for a 10 kilometre run?  If you waited to feel motivated to go for a run then you would probably be waiting a long time. However, let’s imagine you are genuinely committed to achieving a particular goal such as completing a local 10K race and you have a clear idea of the values which underpin this particular goal then you will probably have no trouble getting your running shoes on and heading out of the door.  Even if you don’t particularly feel like going for a run you will probably do it because you have a goal you really, really want to achieve and, more importantly you have identified the values which underpin the goal and it is your values, remember that motivate you. You know you will experience some physical discomfort during the run including feeling cold and tired, you may even experience some mental discomfort as you ask yourself why on earth you are doing this but you will also feel absolutely wonderful when you get back home because you know, deep down that you are living your values!  Having a lie in will bring you temporary pleasure but the experience will be short lived because the pleasure is relatively insignificant and isn’t congruent with what really matters to you.  The satisfaction you experience living your values will, by contrast have a deep and lasting influence – it will endure.

So, what are your values? What matters the most to you? What goals could you set for yourself both in the short term and long term that would enable you to live your values?






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