More is Less, Less is More ... Happiness? - Optimism Week


By Dane Feldman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a 2005 lecture that has since spawned into a viral video and TED Talk, Swarthmore College psychology professor Barry Schwartz discussed his book Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, saying that the “official dogma of all western industrial societies” dictates that we must maximize choice in order to maximize our well being. But contrary to natural assumption, Schwartz tells us that, by maximizing our choices, we are experiencing paralysis rather than freedom. What this paralysis means is that “with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all.”

In short, we have too many options here in the 21st century for our own good, or ‘more is less.’

So, if more is less does this mean less is more? Are the two synonymous? How do they relate to pessimism? To the minimalism implied therein?

Well, aside from the paralysis, one of the worst repercussions that stems from what Schwartz refers to as this official dogma of western civilization is a rise in expectations. Schwartz says this rise in expectations leads to disappointment and “less satisfaction with results even when they are good results.”

What this means is that the “best it can be is that it is as good as [we] expected.” Only, what Schwartz doesn’t know is that “the secret to happiness is low expectations,” as he says it, is actually the unofficial mantra of pessimists.

If we have low expectations, it allows us to be pleasantly surprised rather than consistently disappointed, but because Schwartz is likely a pessimist himself, he claims that the act of being pleasantly surprised no longer exists due to the ludicrous amount of choices we now have in our day to day life. That being said, lower expectations seem to be something of a life-extender, according to ZME Science, whether or not Schwartz is right about the lost art of pleasant surprises.

Some say the answer to this paralysis is to edit our lives — to become minimalists. This is certainly the case with minimalist founder of, Graham Hill. His mantra is that a “life edited” can lead to more happiness. He is a minimalist in its truest form as he now lives in a transformed and remarkably designed space-saving 420 square-foot apartment and preaches that we must shrink our massive carbon footprints by ridding ourselves of too much stuff, or “less stuff, more happiness.”

Hill “suggest[s] that less might actually equal more” and explains that our happiness levels have actually “flat-lined over the last 50 years,” likely due to consumerism, or too many choices, as Schwartz tells us.

Author and self-proclaimed minimalist, Meg Wolfe, says she “has downsized, decluttered, and otherwise simplified nearly every aspect of life in order to see life more clearly.” She has written three books about minimalism, two are cookbooks with just 27 recipes in each. Wolfe, a woman who “admit[s] to a tendency toward negative thinking,” in her post Positive or Negative also says she feels empowered by her new and clutter-less lifestyle.

It is no coincidence that Wolfe promotes blogs titled Be More With Less and Ex-Consumer with mottos like “Buy less crap. Save more money. Be free,” on her blogroll.

Shakespeare wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit” in Hamlet. Perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this idea of brevity transcends into what it means to be a modern-day minimalist. Brevity may not be a synonym of minimalism, but it should be. If any of this resonates at all, it seems the answer to our stagnant happiness—or rather unhappiness—is to “edit ruthlessly,” as Hill says, and to embrace the idea that more is less does, in fact, equal less is more.