[Last Updated: 7/31/2017]
Having spent the better part of my life obsessing over what makes a good life, I’m afraid that the high-level summary of what I have learned is: I don’t know. Sure, there is some data on the types of choices that are likely to make us more or less happy, but in general, when we think something will make us happy, we are wrong.
What’s more, there’s evidence that the very act of trying to make decisions about what will make us happy makes us even more unhappy. As Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice, “[T]here is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”
(Spoiler alert: when he gets to the taco place, they’re out of tacos)
We know we aren’t usually good at knowing what makes us happy, and we know that the very act of making decisions might make us unhappy.
It would seem, then, that our lives might actually be improved by eliminating many of the decision-making processes from our lives. By liberating ourselves from the responsibility to make decision after decision, we may be able to make ourselves happier. With that in mind, I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself lately.
I call it the “Random Life Experience Generator.” It’s basically just a process for introducing a certain degree of randomness into my life—and eliminating the need for making decisions in areas where my decision-making is unlikely to improve my life.
I have an app on my phone called “Pretty Random,” which is just a random number generator. Often, when I’m faced with a trivial decision, I assign each of the options a number, and then I let the app decide.
Et Voila! I’m making a lot fewer life decisions.
Sometimes it’s easy to apply the Random Life Experience Generator (RLEG), and sometimes it’s a bit more work. The RLEG works particularly well at some Mexican restaurants, where each of the plates has a specific number. It takes a bit more effort for something such as selecting the trails where I might run on any given day, as it’s required me to generate a list of all the trails I run and assign them a number. I’ve also done this with clothes, games, and meals.
From where to eat to what to order to how long to meditate to how long to run to where to run, the things I do every day, within certain parameters, are decided by a random number generator. This has had a bigger impact on me than what I would have expected. In a very good way.
Here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ve found:
Relinquishing control and letting go feels fantastic.
[T]o concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection.
Shunryu Suzuki and David Chadwick, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
When you see a menu with 50 items, there’s an inherent anxiety about trying to pick the best thing. But does it really matter if you pick what is objectively the best item on the menu? Not a bit. It’s just food. Your consumption choices don’t define you. As a handsome, wise man once told me…
Life isn’t about finding the world’s greatest taco. Whether you’re talking about your consumer choices or your random personal choices, happiness is much more about our reactions to life’s vicissitudes than constantly trying to control life’s vicissitudes. You can fret over every food choice and try to over-optimize for every second of your life, or you can let life happen, and just appreciate the experience as it occurs. I vote for the latter.
It forces you to be nimble.
Even when you do try to control things, life doesn’t always play along. Going into the day with the mindset that unexpected stuff is going to happen, and that you’re going to be ok with it, is just a good way to approach life. Because that’s how it is even if you do try to maintain the illusion of control.
You have life experiences you would not have had otherwise.
I had tentatively planned to go on a trip this fall to Zions and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But when I really thought about the trip, it didn’t seem that exciting to me. Perhaps because it was very similar to a number of other trips we had done recently (to Moab and the Grand Canyon). The scenery isn’t all that different from where we live now, an area with lots of majestic canyons. I’m sure it’d be a great trip, but the reason we picked it was because it was consistent with all the other things we had used to make all of our other routine life choices.
And this is just the issue. When you formalize your opinions, your preferences converge and start to result in redundancy in decision-making. The very act of randomizing your decision-making forces you into a wider variety of rich life experiences. The RLEG gets you out of your comfort zone. And I think that’s a good thing.
It makes your life more representative of what life is really like for all people.
Also, as any statistician could tell you, one of the main benefits of randomization is that it gives you a more representative sample of the population.
If you meet 50 different English majors at a liberal arts college, they will not be representative of the population, because English majors at liberal arts colleges are not like most people. Same with businessmen on Wall Street or lawyers in your hometown or people you meet at your local bars or restaurants or people you interact with on Facebook. You’ve already selected your social circle based on people who think, act, talk, and look like you. And that’s ok. That what people do.
But it’s also good to get outside those bubbles on occasion.
Randomization makes it so that your actual life has more representation from parts of the planet that aren’t exactly like you. For most of us, that’s sorely needed.
It gets you out of your ruts.
I spent the better part of my 20s buying, collecting, and learning to play a bunch of musical instruments. Banjo, mandolin, harmonica, bass, even the baglama saz. But over the years, I stopped playing most of them. I just got out of the habit.
But I got all the instruments for a reason. It’s fun to pick up a banjo or ukulele and be able to play. It’s a wonderful mental contrast to working as a lawyer, and I enjoy it. And in the last few weeks, I’ve started playing them all again. I’ve assigned each of my instruments a number, and then each day I have the RLEG decide what I’m going to play, and for how long (within certain pre-selected parameters).
I go into each day not having any clue what it will look like. I can’t know. It hasn’t been decided yet.
It frees you from the obsessive TripAdvisor, Yelp, Peak Taco mindset.
When I was studying abroad in college many years ago, one weekend I took my Eurorail pass and hopped on a train from Barcelona to Genoa, Italy. I had my handy Let’s Go guide, and I used it to pick a restaurant.
They had a list of options they recommended, but the one that stuck out to me was this restaurant that was tucked away in some remote, isolated corner of the city. The guide described the place as a local favorite, a tiny mom-and-pop shop unknown to the outside world.
And of course, when I got there, it was filled with tourists with Let’s Go guides just like me.
The tools and guides we use to shape our choices homogenize our lives and actually change the experiences we seek. It’s like a quantum physics observational effect that actually changes the result of the experiment itself.
The only way to get out of that trap is to stop using the exact same decision-making processes everyone else uses.
It’s just easier.
Setting your parameters, plugging in the numbers, and letting randomness decide what you’re going to do takes precious little effort.
Life is hard enough. Some choices matter very much and some don’t. By letting a randomizer handle some of the less significant life choices, I now have less mental load in my days. I just don’t waste any energy planning things most of the small things in my life any more. And I think that’s usually a good thing.
Humans weren’t meant to have perfectly designed lives.
Hunter-gatherers did not evolve in a world of 200 types of gelato, 25-row grocery stores, and 70-aisle superstores. Throughout most of human history, we ate what we could find. We did what we could do to survive on a daily basis. Which means most days we didn’t know what our lives were going to look like at the beginning of the day. We didn’t have an alarm clock and calendar guiding us on rigorous, inflexible routines.
Over-optimizing our lives is an inherently unnatural process. We’re meant to experience randomness, variation, excess, and scarcity. The RLEG replicates a tiny bit of that natural, inherent uncertainty.
It’s not about “peak” experience. It’s about diverse and richer experiences.
Some might say that this is just another way to make banal bougie consumption choices. But it doesn’t have to be about consumption at all. It can be about going to a different park with your kid. Or driving (or walking or biking) a different way home from work. Or about socializing with people you never would interact with otherwise. Going places that aren’t on your bucket list.
In general, it’s about living a life that isn’t already on what seems to be your currently pre-ordained path.
Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to try to introduce randomness into all aspects of life. There are some circumstances where it would be a very bad idea (hemlock for breakfast?!?). As an attorney, for example, I wouldn’t last long trying to practice law that way (random number generator gave me a 7, looks like we’re going to have to litigate!). And even when we do introduce randomness, best to do so within reasonable parameters (today I’m going to eat 13,000 calories). But I think that our culture is so biased toward personal choice and consumption and its deep connection to personal identity, that introducing some degree of randomness, however trivial, is healthy.
I’ve heard about some people who take this practice to extremes. The exact degree it might be helpful to you probably depends on the specifics of your personality and circumstances. But I’d encourage anyone who has made it thus far to give it a shot, even if it’s just in a few small things. I think most of us could use a little more randomness in our lives.
Or at least that’s the way it has been for me.