Why Flipping a Coin Will Make You Happier

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Decisions are part of daily life for everybody, even decisions not to decide. Some people find them agonizing, whether you're a Hamlet or a Chidi; other people breeze right through choices, with no distinction between big ones and small ones. These seem like pretty immutable characteristics, but it's actually possible — and beneficial — to switch from one to the other.

Freakonomics economist Steven Levitt has just published a study about happiness and the status quo. In short, he asks if we can predict how happy we'll be after we've made a decision, and whether making that decision a certain kind of way will change that. Levitt falls back on the simplest randomizer of them all: flipping a coin. In his experiment, he asks participants to make a major life decision (or at least "an important choice") on a heads/tails outcome. He checked back in with them two months after the study and six months after.

In theory, this should be totally random, and decision-makers should be about evenly split about the effects of their choice down the line. But Levitt found that those who relied on the coin toss to guide them were actually happier with their decision after six months. Mostly, it's important to upend your daily slog. "A good rule of thumb in decision-making," Levitt says, "is whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo."

Behavioral economists have a lot of different means of explaining how we make choices, not to mention some good ways of breaking out of choice paralysis. In a pinch, though, fishing some change out of your pocket might be the simplest and most reliable way forward.