We’ve been tricked.
All of us have heard the cliche, “less is more”, at one point or another. But while we know the cliche, many of us don’t believe it. We are continually bombarded with advertisements implying the opposite “more is better.” And we buy what we’re being sold.
More medication, more food, more channels, more options, more technology, more more more.
We avoid less because we’ve been deceived into thinking more is better. Many of us have never had more, yet it seems more has actually meant less. Less happiness, less peace, less satisfaction, less joy.
We’re sold “more is better” when in fact, more is often a mirage. We have more and more, but it seems to mean less and less. We often feel worse, not better.
And this isn’t just my opinion. It’s backed by science.
The Shocking Truth About Choice
In a 2010 article from The New York Times, we learn about the psychology of choice.
“Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of The Art of Choosing, (Twelve) to be published next month, conducted the study in 1995.
In a California gourmet market, Professor Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons jams. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one Wilkin & Sons jam.
Here’s the interesting part. Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.”
Did you catch that? People were 10 times as likely to purchase when they had fewer options than when they had more options. More options mapped to greater indecision or, in fact, no decision at all.
Dr. Iyengar noted, “The study raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”
Why I Hate Ordering at The Cheesecake Factory
More and more doesn’t just mean less; it often means worse. You know this feeling if you’ve ever ordered food at Cheesecake Factory and In-N-Out Burger. While offering two totally different culinary experiences, they also offer two different experiences when it comes to choice and anxiety.
Cheesecake Factory hands you a book with 20 pages of options, leaving you overwhelmed with choices. You can eat any type of food imaginable and then wish you had what your neighbor got but you buried after all the ads. (If you need ads to pay for your menu, it’s too long!)
In-N-Out leaves you with 3 options – double-double, cheeseburger, or hamburger. (Yes, I know there’s a secret menu but even those are simply different versions of those 3 options). I’ve never left In-N-Out wishing I ordered something different, whereas the minute I give up my menu at Cheesecake Factory, I doubt I made the right call.
Information on our options doesn’t always make things easier. The New York Times article I mentioned earlier goes on to describe how it’s not just choice-overload we face, but information-overload too. Sometimes, the information about our options is often as paralyzing and debilitating as the options themselves.
But my favorite line in the entire article is this one.
“Research also shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.”
FOMO – The Modern Plague
Ding ding ding. We’ve found our culprit – FOMO! Fear of Missing Out – the disease plaguing our modern world.
Our problem with choice often comes down to fear of missing out. We’re commitment phobes – always holding out in fear we’re going to regret a decision or miss a better option. Isn’t it ironic? By refusing to engage the good option right in front of you out of fear you’ll miss out on something good later, you ensure you miss out on something good now.
How often does FOMO lead to us sitting there bummed because we missed out entirely?
We’re Avoiding What We Need
I’ve noted in the last few weeks that we tend to avoid the things which can help and even transform us. I’ve explored adversity, criticism, and failure. I think this discussion of less deserves a spot on this list, too.
Whether you call it simplicity, minimalism, focus or just “less”, I believe we avoid these out of full-hearted devotion to “more.” As a result, we have more clothes but nothing to wear. More channels but “nothing is on.” More movies on Netflix but more time spent scrolling through options only to declare we have nothing to watch. More apps and more “boredom.” More friends online but fewer people we actually know and even fewer who truly know us.
We avoid less but it actually means more engagement, appreciation, presence, peace, and rest.
When my wife and I got married, our first home was a 1 bedroom, 700 square foot apartment. On the nights when I was taking classes in seminary, Dani was at home, weeding out my stuff and leaving piles by the door. I had two options – use the item within 7 days, sell it or give it to charity. While I did balk at her demand I use my french press while it was still over 100 degrees outside, this process led to getting rid of the items I didn’t need and helped me engage more consistently the items I did keep. Having fewer things means you actually engage the things you do have more.
We increase our engagement with the people and things in our lives when we decrease the number available to us. If engagement matters, then more is often the enemy of what we want.
How many parents have you heard complain about how little their kids appreciate their toys when they have so many? I know my kids have more toys than they can play with in a given week. If we weeded out their toys significantly, there would be tears, but they would begin to appreciate the ones they do have because they’d be enjoying them.
We cannot appreciate something (or someone) we do not interact with and the crushing abundance we experience often prevent appreciation. This is one reason why the rise of minimalism makes sense. When you only keep the things you truly need and enjoy, it’s no surprise when your level of appreciation rises.
When we are bouncing between an abundance of commitments and a multitude of relationships, we struggle to be present and engaged in any one moment or any one relationship. Good things can become distractions. How many of us in the last 24 hours have been physically present with someone we love but digitally present somewhere else? The people we love not only want our physical presence but our mental and emotional presence too.
Steve Jobs is one of many well-known figures who narrowed his wardrobe, wearing nearly the same outfit every day. He said the elimination of choice gave him more mental energy to devote to other more important areas. I’ve read stories of others who’ve chosen to eat the same food daily for similar reasons. While some of us might consider this boring and rote, it feels kind of peaceful to me. As the study I mentioned earlier indicated, a choice often brings anxiety with it and eliminating choice can reduce anxiety too.
More means more to care for. Having a bigger house means spending more time to clean it (or paying more money to someone else to do it). More often leads to more maintenance. Sure, more isn’t exclusively bad, but more doesn’t always equal more rest.
I was in a home recently where I instantly felt a sense of rest and peace. And then I noticed it was clean and minimally decorated. It wasn’t spartan, but it was clear the design and furnishings were intentionally chosen, with restraint. This impacted how I felt in the space.
I also know what it was like to walk into the office of someone I used to know whose space was chaotic and unkempt with stacks everywhere. It stressed me out and I wanted to get out as fast as I could. Less often enables us to rest in ways more won’t allow.
A Final Thought on Less
I must confess that I am an imperfect guide here. I’m sure my wife will read this post and point out the many places where I violate my own advice above. Like all of you, I’m a hypocrite, struggling to practice all I preach. But, I am striving (due in large part to the encouragement of my life) to become more and more comfortable with less. I’m more aware than ever before of the myth of more and I hope you’ll allow this post to provoke reflection in your own life.
While we live in a culture which resists less, more clearly isn’t working as well as we’re being told (or sold). Let’s give less a shot!
[callout] I’ll be following up on this piece with some practical next steps regarding “less”. If you’d like to receive that article in your inbox, enter your email in the box below. [/callout]