July 14 was a “question box” worship service, with me answering questions that people wrote down on index cards. If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! The only problem was that I didn’t have near enough time to answer all the great questions I received, so I’ll be answering some of those in my column this summer, starting today:

Question: In your opinion, why do the people in poor nations seem happier than the people of wealthy nations, e.g. the USA?

Answer: In part, because they have fewer choices.

Barry Schwartz talks about this in The Paradox of Choice. Research shows that too many choices cause us anxiety, and often dissatisfaction with the choice we made. I get that. If I have the choice between vanilla or chocolate, I’ll choose chocolate, and be satisfied with it. But if my choices are Triple Ribbon Chocolate, Caramel Crunch Chocolate, or Chocolate Explosion, I’ll be wondering if I could have had something better than the one I chose.

In 1956, Herbert Simon coined the term “Satisficing” to describe making decisions not about what is optimal (because that can’t be determined) but acceptable. Schwartz drew a distinction between “satisficers” and “maximizers.” The first stops when they have an acceptable decision, while the maximizer seeks the best possible decision (or the best possible ice cream). In our country, where a new computer, camera, phone, etc. comes out every day, which person is happier? The satisficer.

Another element at play involves our understanding of our wealth in relation to others. A study came out a couple of years ago in the Psychological Science journal, that said that it’s not the amount of money we have that makes us happy, it’s if we feel that we have more than our friends or neighbors. Being the richest person in a poor neighborhood makes us feel wealthier than being the poorest person in a rich neighborhood.

Now, some research flatly contradicts the idea that people in poor nations are happier. Certainly not being able to get enough food or shelter leads to despair. But the overall studies seem to indicate that after our basic needs are met, material goods (and the pursuit of them) can keep us from what we really want – joy and meaning.