We make decisions every single day, some more important than others and some relatively unimportant. Everything you do is a decision, from deciding to leave the house in the morning to deciding to go to sleep at night. It ranges over the biggest and smallest things in our lives: from the big decisions about our careers and family, to the small ones like deciding what to have for lunch. In the words of Alain de Botton, taken from his handy guides to life and love under the umbrella organisation The School of Life, “A good life is the fruit of a succession of good decisions”. We all want and mostly deserve a good life full of happiness and contentment. So for something that is so important to us and to our lives, how is that we sometimes make bad decisions that hurt us and those around us, and what can we do to improve on this?
How we make decisions
Decision-making may be an innate part of being human, but it is also a skill, meaning it can be taught, trained and improved. There are methods to improving our everyday decision-making. Firstly, it’s important to understand the types of decision-making we employ on a daily basis. These fall into two distinct camps: Gut instinct decisions, and rationally thought-out decisions. We tend to think of ourselves as entirely rational beings, only doing things that make sense and yield benefits to us. However, anyone with a good memory and a modicum life experience under their belt might look back and understand that this is not always the case. Looking back it can be hard to understand why we have made bad decisions in life; why we make decisions that lead us into ruts and bad routines; why people have extra-marital affairs; or why we remain at unsatisfying jobs that slowly chip away at our vitality.An important aspect of human nature to understand is that the negative voice in our heads is always louder than the positive. We are quicker to put ourselves down than we are to pick ourselves up; quicker to see our flaws and self-criticize than we are to see our good points and self-complement. Due to this we aren’t always fully rational in our decisions, but an important aspect of improving is recognising this.
Instinct or examination?
We are actually far more inclined to instinctual decisions than most of us would believe. When faced with a decision, we are heavily susceptible to emotion, social bias and outside influence. The intuitive part of our brain is incredibly powerful, with experts claiming that up to 90% of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously rather than consciously like we would assume. Due to this, it’s no wonder that the advertising industry is as big as it is, with colourful adverts and attractive people seeking to sway us into buying certain products by peddling the belief that they may improve our lives. Going with our gut on a decision is not always a bad choice; it can be tremendously helpful and can lead to happy instances in life. However, the best decisions are usually made after looking at all the facts and considering the outcome we want. We can allow our gut-instincts to guide us but ultimately, when making a decision, the best outcomes are usually a product of prior-examination, of considering what we want to get out of something, and how best to go about getting it.
One of the best things we can do to improve this necessary aspect of life is train our brains to think in more probabilistic terms. Sounds hard, right? Science communicator and high-rolling poker champion Liv Boeree disagrees. In her recent TED talk she provides a road map to probabilistic thinking, advising that while sometimes you have to go with your gut, at other times it is important to take a moment and think, what are the numbers here? What is the probability that this decision will be beneficial? Is it really worth pursuing something if the probability of success is low? Would your time be spent better on other pursuits?’ The video is definitely worth a watch as Liv explains her methods in thorough and understandable ways and relates them to successes throughout her career, explaining how we can adopt these methods too.
Making good decisions is tough, but by training our decision making like any skill, we can improve the probability of happiness in our everyday lives. Sometimes it is important to listen to your gut, however you can do this and then build upon what your instinct is telling you with intelligent reasoning. It never hurts to take some time and think things through, and think of the probability that any given decision will lead to a happy outcome. The life we lead is representative of the decisions we have made, and everyone wants to live a good life, so why not take the time to be sure you’re being the best you.