Barry Schwartz: Wisdom and Happiness

Editor’s Note: Barry Schwartz is one of the very few people who thinks Really Big. He is an American psychologist and Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for thirty year. He spoke at TED Main Stage for three times. He has over 5 Millions Views on his three thoughtful, profound and impressive TED Talks: The paradox of choice, Our loss of wisdom and Using our practical wisdom.

He is the author of several outstanding books including: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing and The Costs of Living. You can read his full bio from here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Barry Schwartz recently to gain his ideas and insights about Wisdom and Happiness which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Schwartz, thank you so much for joining us. We are honored and thrilled to have you at eTalks.

B. Schwartz: My pleasure, Niaz.

Niaz: In 2010, you along with Kenneth Sharpe have published a book called ‘Practical Wisdom’. You call practical wisdom the “Master Virtue”. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us about practical wisdom?

B. Schwartz: I call it the master virtue because it helps us decide whether, how, and how much to display other virtues. For example, courage is the mean (Aristotle’s word) between cowardice and recklessness.  It takes wisdom to find the mean.  Honesty is a virtue and kindness is a virtue but sometimes we have to choose between them.  Wisdom is what enables us to do so.

Niaz: You’ve said in the past that we’ve lost practical wisdom. How and when did we lose it?

B. Schwartz: Wisdom has to be nurtured by giving people the opportunity to use their judgment, get feedback, and improve their judgment over time.  We have substituted rules for judgment.  As a result, people can do the same job for 30 years and have the same bad judgment after 30 years as they had when they started.

Niaz: Why do you think “The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.”?

B. Schwartz: Because it takes judgment to do the right thing in the complex social world.  Being brilliant does not mean that you have good judgment.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about how wisdom applies to happiness?

B. Schwartz: Here is how I think wisdom applies to happiness.  Two key determinants of happiness are meaningful, engaging work and close relations with other people.  I think wisdom is essential for both of these things.  If you are wise, your work is better and your social relations are better.

Niaz: Why does ‘the secret to happiness is low expectations’?

B. Schwartz: Because we evaluate what we get by comparing it to what we expected to get.  If our expectations are too high, we’ll be disappointed with even good results.

Niaz: I have one other major question. You said that what makes people happiest is close relationships, not having things, even though these relationships constrain our choices. But don’t relationships also expand our choices — in a superficial way, by people giving us information about movies to see, places to vacation, etc. — and also in a more profound way, by giving us a chance to experience the world through other eyes, and see other ways of viewing things?

B. Schwartz: You don’t need close relationships to get movie recommendations.  Close relationships imply mutual concern and obligation.  That constrains choices.

Niaz: And in terms of happiness, what is your word on decision making?

B. Schwartz: My word is that too many options can undermine happiness inducing paralysis, bad decisions and dissatisfaction with even good decision.  So also can having standards that are too high—always wanting the best.

Niaz: You say that rules are the enemy of moral skill. But many people are saying that the country’s current financial meltdown was caused by an absence of rules and regulations.

B. Schwartz: Yes.  We need rules. Absolutely. But anyone who thinks that the “right” rules will solve the problem of financial irresponsibility is kidding him or herself.

Niaz: As you know, modern times, technological innovation and western prosperity have enabled us to do just about anything we want. What is the downside?

B. Schwartz: First, now that we can do anything we want, we can’t figure out what we want to do.  Also, we adapt to good things we experience in life so that they stop feeling like good things and we look for even better things.

Niaz: In 2005, you have published ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less’. What is the “paradox of choice”?

B. Schwartz: The paradox is that more choice should enhance our sense of freedom but for many it leads to paralysis.  The paradox is that lots of choice should enable us to make better choices and thus be more satisfied but it makes us less satisfied.

Niaz: In the NYT magazine, scientist Roy Baumeister talks about decision fatigue: His theory is that too many decisions wear us out and negatively affect our judgment.

B. Schwartz: Yes, and he’s correct.

Niaz: What’s the scope of the paradox of choice?

B. Schwartz: I don’t know, but I suspect it applies to everything.

Niaz: What about outside consumer goods?

B. Schwartz: Jobs, places to live, what to study, where to study, romantic attachments.  It operates in all of those domains as well.

Niaz: What happens as we become more, if not over-reliant on filters?

B. Schwartz: Relying on filters helps us solve the problem of too much choice.  Of course the filters have to be good ones.

Niaz: How far would you take your experiment before you offer, to quote Henry Ford, “any color, as long as it’s black”?

B. Schwartz: I would never do that.  Choice is good.  The trick is to figure out how much choice allows us to derive the benefits of choice without paying the price.

Niaz:  Do you think people in their 20s and 30s are having more problems than earlier generations in making some of these major life decisions — are putting off choosing a career, a mate — some of those really big decisions?

B. Schwartz: Yes.  Absolutely.

Niaz: Finally, how do you nurture people to do the right thing?

B. Schwartz: You do it by setting an example, by giving people a chance to use their judgment and by being there to catch them when they fall and help them improve their judgment.

Niaz: Thanks again for joining us and sharing your enlightening ideas and knowledge. We wish you good luck as well as we want your healthy and safe life. Take very good care.

B. Schwartz: You’re welcome Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

2. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

3. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

4. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

5. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

6. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

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