The Cost of Always Holding Out for Something Better

September 21, 2009

What IfBrett and Kate McKay write The Art of Manliness, a successful personal development blog that is tailored to men, but contains many excellent, thoughtful articles that I enjoy. Recently, they wrote about a general condition of restlessness and anxiousness in our society, a sort of general malaise. They define it as feeling like there’s this great life you should be living but you just don’t know how to make it happen. Or that your life is generally going great and you’re doing the kind of things that you want to do, but you just have this sinking feeling that maybe you’re missing out on something.

I do believe there’s an epidemic of this sort of dissatisfation.  Research shows that in 1966 only 9% of people polled agreed with the statement, “I feel left out of things going on around me.” In 1986, 37% of people felt that way.  It’s especially true in the area of relationships. Many young women I know feel that they’re unusual in feeling dissatisfied with hooking up, and that everyone else’s hookups lead to great relationships. In fact, most women I hear from feel dissatisfied, and while hookups do lead to relationships sometimes, many of those relationships are not great by a long shot. For men, studies on college campuses show that guys estimate that 75-80% of men on campus have had sex within the last month, when the real number is in the 5-10% range. We tend to believe the grass is greener for everyone else.

Why do we feel this way?

We’re constantly exposed to media that portrays unrealistic relationships. Happy endings have always been good for book and movie sales aimed at women, but in today’s world of commitment-free sex, the happiness must be won after an intense struggle. The girl is initially disappointed, then gets the guy after he’s undergone a change of some sort, an epiphany in which he surrenders to the wonders of true love and chooses her. These are the stories we’ve been raised on, and they make us believe that everything will work out for us in the end. We’ll bump into some adorable guy with a cute butt and three days’ growth, and he’ll say, “Wow! I have to know you!” Men see porn, where the women always say yes, make no demands, and are easy to please. They fantasize about being with an incredibly beautiful sex goddess, though they’ve never actually met one. Of course, women and men do meet, hook up, have relationships, fall in love. But not the way it happens in chick lit or porn. Very few of us live stories that will be optioned for a film someday. The reality pales by comparison.

If we are dissatisfied due to the gap between our expectations and reality, it stands to reason that we can only become content if we can figure out a way to close that gap. In a new post today, the McKays suggest that the cure for restlessness is to be found in limiting one’s choices. That’s a scary thought for most of us. Why would we ever want to limit our choices? If I have ten guys to choose from, aren’t I much better off than if only one guy is interested in me? Not necessarily. Because when you have ten to choose from, choosing one means rejecting the other nine. And what if one of those nine is actually a better catch? This is known in economics as “opportunity cost.” You get one guy, but give up nine, and that feels like a net loss. So you dither and waffle and screw things up while you remain indecisive.

The McKays state, “Choices are good, but there’s comes a point of diminishing returns. And that point is reached when the opportunity costs become so great that you cannot enjoy the choice that you make. The accompanying trade-offs haunt you and rob you of taking satisfaction in your chosen course. Unwilling to deal with potential trade-offs, many men decide the best course is not to choose at all, with the idea that keeping as many options open as possible offers the most freedom and the most happiness. But as intuitive as that might seem, studies show that it just doesn’t work that way.”

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says:

What could create larger opportunity costs than choosing one mate and losing the chance to enjoy all the attractive features of other potential spouses? Whereas delaying marriage and avoiding commitment would seem to promote self-discovery, this freedom and self-exploration seems to leave many people feeling more lost than found.

The McKays believe that when confronted with the numerous choices of life, men feel restless and believe that the cure to the problem is more freedom and choices. “Thus they detach themselves from their commitments. But this only creates more choices in their life, which makes them feel more restless and the cycle continues.”

This has enormous implications for relationships. Men frequently refuse to commit to one relationship because they don’t want to limit their choices. Often they will be in the midst of spending time with and enjoying a particular woman, and don’t have any other opportunities to consider. Still, they are eager to remain uncommitted on the off chance that a better alternative will soon present itself. In an era when it’s not difficult to hookup with strangers, that better option may be only a weekend away. Of course, he won’t commit to that woman either, and on and on it goes.

Women fall into a variation of the same trap. We meet a guy, enjoy his company, want to like him. But we find we just can’t make it happen. He may have lots of good qualities, but he’s not the catch we dreamed of as we watched The Notebook again last weekend. We want an all-consuming, passionate love, but how many couples do you know like that? How many couples have been brought together by a powerful romantic destiny? In my own life, I don’t know any. I know many happy couples, but they’re not storybook relationships. They’re imperfect, messy, real and rewarding.

How can we productively limit our choices without giving up the best ones?

“Define your core values, understand what you really want out of life, and then focus only on the choices that fit those parameters.”

You probably can’t have it all, but if you live your life fearing regret and missed chances, you may look back one day and wish you’d given one of those people a shot. That may be the only “What if?” that counts.