The last time I wrote about love and relationships is about two years ago. Only twice* I had the courage to do so on my blog. Which is funny because I tend to think about it almost, well, daily? But then again I’d like to believe that I am not the only single out there for whom these topics take up quotidian mindshare.
I was binge-reading Aziz Ansari's book “Modern Romance” on my flight from San Francisco to Lagos, and it helped me structure and crystalize some of my own thoughts that I had not been able to articulate previously.
What struck me is how marriage and partnership have evolved over the past 100 years. Looking back, three characteristics stood out to me: i) you would get married very young (often as a mean to leave your parents' home and start your own life), you would get married to someone in your vicinity (because that was your dating horizon), and the process was often more pragmatic/rational than emotional (very much what arranged marriages try to achieve).
Compare that with an exemplary case from today’s world of dating: you are in San Francisco, waiting for your Uber to get to the airport for a work trip to London. And en route to the airport, you casually swipe 20+ mobile dating profiles because you got the pro version of whatever app you are using – just to make sure you got some game once you hit town? This is insane.
Sounds exaggerated to you? Nope, I even toned it down a little. It wasn’t 20+, but more like 100+ profiles that I went through.
Joking aside (i.e. I am not the protagonist of this sample case), these stories are real. You can read this superb Vanity Fair piece on today’s dating culture if you don’t believe it. I still fall into the Millennial bracket (call me “Senior Millennial”), but that piece made my jaw drop a few times. And while I am comparing today’s dating with yesterday’s marriage, the point is still the same: times have changed BIGLY (I just had to…).
As a result of new priorities that many of us have in our 20s – college, finding a job, moving cities, traveling the world, finding oneself – we have a new type of an "early adulthood” period. A time dedicated to exploring romantic options, developing one’s sexuality, and eventually finding our soul mate. A period that previous generations didn’t really have when they got married to their next-block neighbor at 22. Back then, you weren’t looking for your soul mate, “good enough” was all you got.
Never have we had as many romantic options as we have today. Great, right? Well, not really. Amidst today’s search for Mrs. Perfect and Mr. Charming, we are inundated with the options at hand. More choices and happiness are not correlated. It makes decision-making, and thus life, more difficult (think of indecision and paralysis). We want to find the best, but in order to find the best – by definition – we would need to go through all our options. Good luck (you should consider insuring your fingers because that swiping is gonna hurrrrt).
Like we go on dates, but then the smallest annoyance is enough to dismiss the other person. Since you know so little about the person, you end up overweighing the few things you do know or see. Oh, you have never traveled to Europe? Yikes, sorry, not cultural enough for me, arrivederci! Knowing the next option is just around the corner (aka a swipe away), we suddenly find these instant disqualifiers – small annoyances that we blow out of proportion because we are looking for the best option, remember?
Honestly, I don’t think we give each other a sufficient-enough chance. Sure, if your date turns out to be terrible, book your loss and move on. But before you dismiss someone for their haircut, their interests or lack of cultural exposure, give them a proper chance. Too often we fall for the mindset of “I think I can find someone who is better.” If you were to get to know each other more, you would be more forgiving to these small things and start appreciating elements of their character that don’t always shine through on the first date.
Yet even when we find liking in someone, make it past the dating stage, officially come together in form of a relationship, we often end up riddled with doubt. Congrats, you found someone great, but how can you be sure that that person is the greatest?
What we often suffer from is a bias called aggregation bias. Let’s say there are three things that equally matter to us in our partner (just as an example): looks, wealth and smarts. And let’s say our partner is a solid 8/10 on all of the dimensions (which is a pretty amazing deal if you ask me). Now let’s assume there are three other people we come across next to our partner.
- Person A is a 10/10 on looks, but a 6/10 on wealth and smarts.
- Person B is a 10/10 on wealth, but a 6/10 on looks and smarts.
- Person C is a 10/10 on smarts, but a 6/10 on looks and wealth.
What do we see? If we took the average of each of these individuals, we would be at 7.33/10 compared to the 8/10 average of our partner. But that’s not what we are seeing. The aggregation bias kicks in and we suddenly think that our "outside option” is a person that is 10/10 on all three dimensions. And now we are comparing our existing 8/10 with a hypothetical, nonexistent 10/10 that we have aggregated in our mind (i.e., the nonexistent combination of these three people).
But maybe we are just doing it all wrong. What if “looking for the best” is just the wrong approach given how the rules of the game have changed and the new reality that we have at hands? What if there was different way to approach this search?
Well, this takes us back to where I began this article, namely 100 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t about making the right decision (i.e., searching for the best option), it was about making the decision right (making the best out of the option that you ended up with). What if the key was to move away from being maximizers to becoming satisficers (a combination of satisfy and suffice – like once it’s sufficient, you are satisfied and you don’t aim for maximization).
If “finding the best option” is just an endless chase with no end in sight (see the aggregation bias as a fitting example), shouldn’t we go back and try to be sufficiently satisfied by looking for the “good enough?” This might sound like “ending up less happy” to your ears, but science shows that satisficers are happier in the long term.
So far in my life, I have been a maximizer. In almost everything that I do. From dating to my job search. In fact, this idea of being a maximizer versus a satisficer can be applied to all different parts of our lives: where to travel next and what gasoline to choose for our car.
But as I think of my life's journey this past decade, and as I think of the next decade ahead of me, I have started to wonder whether this is always the best approach. Just because I have grown to be a maximizer organically (i.e., mostly as a result of my surroundings), it doesn't mean this is the best way of doing it. And I don't also think it's an either/or type of approach to life. In some areas of life it's ok to be a maximizer, and in other parts it's better to be a satisficer. And sometimes it's a mix of them.
I am not trying to make a case for being a satisficer in our search for ever-lasting happiness in our relationships. I mean, none of what I said is meant to substitute or compromise the affection, attraction, romance or the security that a healthy relationship with someone would provide, but maybe – just maybe – we need to rethink our approach to finding the person that will give us all of that.
*The Generation That Wants it All and On the Meaning of Love and Partnership.