27 Mar How A Coin Toss Can Make You Happier
Steven Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics, got interested in people facing “decisions with potentially far-reaching consequences on lifetime utility: whether to quit a job, seek more education, end a relationship, quit smoking, start a diet, etc.”. Decisions we all face every once in a while. I mean, don’t you ever find yourself trying to fall asleep with your mind still being occupied deliberating pro’s and con’s? And with a head trying to handle this overload, wouldn’t it be a relief to decide by something as simple as a coin toss? It sounds too good to be true and might feel like the easy way out but Levitt shows us flipping a coin can actually be the first step towards change and happiness.
For his survey, Levitt created a website where people could fill out a question they wanted to decide upon and have a virtual coin toss make the decision for them. By means of a questionnaire after two and six months their happiness was measured. His research – published as a working paper– has an interesting outcome:
“Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo.”
So, whenever you decide to try a coin toss in order to make a decision, it seems best to make sure the outcome – heads as well as tails – concerns a change. Any change. Because if the coin tells you to start doing something differently, you are much more likely to really make that change which in the end will make you happier. Maybe the latter has something to do with the fact that you already considered a change before even tossing the coin – the reason you raised the question in the first place. But, as Levitt himself warns us in his working paper, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that “those who make a change differ from those who do not make a change on many dimensions”. Comprehensibly, as a researcher, Levitt doesn’t want us to jump to conclusions too quickly. Even I can understand there are differences between risk averse people and risk takers. However, the outcome of Levitt’s survey, combined with the science of positive psychology*, makes clear that if a change is about trying something new, personal growth and matching needs, it will truly leave you happier.
Well then, toss a coin and make that change, you might think. It appears to be a bit more complicated, though, as another intriguing outcome of Levitt’s survey shows. The results of his paper suggest that:
“people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices”.
Big decisions in life tend to scare us or at least get us wary. We are often anxious to share our dreams, more nervous even to act upon them. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is hardly ever possible to completely foresee the consequences of our changes. Besides, most people will always consider the fact that their decision might hurt others. And as human beings, fond of connection and harmony, we therefore think twice (or perhaps a zillion times) about life changing choices that will directly affect other people – especially loved ones. Still I recommend you to toss that coin if you are in for a change. Because if you make a decision that is important for your happiness and growth as a person, you unconsciously give others room to do the same – even if they may feel hurt at first. Because, like Marianne Williamson says: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
* Positive psychology is defined by its founders as the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.