When Paul Dolan sits down at a restaurant, he doesn’t touch the menu. The behavioral scientist lets his friends order his meals for him, neatly eliminating one decision from his day. It’s an offbeat interpretation of the research on decision fatigue, the idea that the self-control it takes to make decisions is a finite resource, and the more decisions we make, the worse we get at making them.
Dolan figures, why not conserve that decision-making energy for the things that really matter? It’s one of many unexpected happiness strategies Dolan outlines in his new book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Recently, Science of Us talked to Dolan via email about decision delegating and how leaving (some) choices up to the people who know us best may ultimately make us happier.
When did you start letting your friends choose your meal when you go out for dinner, and why?
I started doing that when I learned that agonizing over decisions can be stressful. And in the restaurant scenario, the consequences of what you eventually choose are not that different from a different option you might have chosen.
It’s never backfired — I always select people who I believe have my best interests at heart, and who know I need lots of protein. I don’t really ever dine alone, but I do often ask the staff for their recommendations.
Why might it be smart to delegate some decisions to our friends?
It’s so that our attentional resources can be devoted to the decisions that really matter for our happiness. Take planning holidays. I don’t like to plan out all the details of every minute, but my best friend, Mig, does and he knows what I like. So I typically let him choose where we’ll stay or where we’ll eat. In turn, I’ll often pick the venue where we go out, because I care about the music more.
Last weekend, I went to a festival with a group of friends and I let them handle the directions, but I was more decisive about when and where we’d see which bands. Everyone cares about different things, and so we can leave the decisions to the people who care the most.
When is it unwise to trust your friends?
It can be unwise if they are very different to you or if they do not have your happiness — or even just happiness itself — as their ultimate goal. For example, if someone values prestige over comfort, they might recommend a pair of uncomfortable boots that look great but that you, as someone who might value comfort more, would hate. If they care more about professional achievement than work-life balance, they might recommend working for a company with long hours but that you, as a person who perhaps prefers balance, would hate working for.
Many people view asking for advice as a sign of weakness. Do you have any theories why that is?
I’m not entirely sure and there are probably many reasons. One might be a value for independence or leadership, and people see asking for advice as a sign of dependence or being a follower. But independent people and leaders can still benefit from the advice of others.