Searching for better, cooler friends might backfire

The key to happiness might be settling for pals who are not the best — merely good enough

Worrying about whether you’ve picked the best people to hang out with can diminish happiness.

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Your mom may have told you that you can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends — so do so wisely. But how much effort should you spend selecting those pals? The answer may surprise you. Good friends may only have to be “good enough,” not the best available. That’s the finding of some new research.

Indeed, the new study finds, the more that people try to find the very best people available on any given day, the less happy they will tend to be.

Psychologists are scientists who study behavior. And they say that there are two basic strategies people use when making choices. This first is something they call “maximizing.” Here, people make a choice only once they’ve considered every available option. The alternative is to look at only a few options and settle with the first one that seems “good enough.”

Maximizing might make it possible to find the very best option. But it can have negative consequences. When people take this approach while shopping, studies find, they tend to be less happy with what they buy. Instead of enjoying what they’ve brought home, they wonder if they might have missed out on something a little bit better.

David Newman wondered whether something similar happens when people choose whom to spend time with. Newman is a psychologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He and his team conducted several experiments with people to find out. Their findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For one experiment, college students filled out a survey every night for two weeks. Some questions asked about how they spent time with their friends that day. Participants rated how much they agreed with various statements that they read. One example: “No matter how satisfied I was with my social group today, I was always on the lookout for better opportunities to spend time with other friends.”

The survey answers helped the researchers determine which approach a student had used in picking whom to hang out with that day. Other questions probed how these students felt about their day, what their emotions had been, and how good they felt about themselves.

On days when people kept looking for better opportunities with their friends, they reported feeling less satisfied. They also felt fewer positive emotions and more negative ones. Moreover, on these days they reported lower self-esteem. Why? This strategy for friendship was linked with increased regret, the scientists say.

The oversize role of ‘regrets’

“If you maximize, you’re always going to be looking for other opportunities,” Newman says. “And that means that you’re even going to be thinking about other options that have already been passed up.” If you decide that you passed up a chance to hang out with a cooler friend, then you may not like your current group as much. That can be true even if you’re having a great time with those people.

Results from the four other experiments in the study by Newman’s team back this up.

Having more options can make things worse. That may be because it’s easier to notice or suspect that a better option has been passed over when there are more of them. People were especially unhappy when they used the maximizing strategy on days they had encountered many friends.

Barry Schwartz  coined the term “maximizing.” He’s a psychologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The new California study is important, he says, because it looks at maximizing in a meaningful area — friendships. It also shows the role of regret. And it shows that maximizing from one day to the next can affect daily happiness.

Newman says there’s another way that the strategy might make you feel bad, aside from increasing regret. People might tend to dismiss the value of anyone who seems to be less-than-the-best (however you might define that). They may not even want to hang out with such second-best pals.

Consider a maximizer who decides to go to a party but spends all of his time there wondering if there’s a better option. So he is texting the whole time, looking for a better party. Those at the current party might think, “Oh, this person is not really interested in this party or in us.”

Having good friends is important. But people who always worry about whether they are missing something better may never be happy with the friends they have or the situations they find themselves in. Oh, and as a result, their friends might not be happy with them either.

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