Neuroscientist Moran Cerf has made a living studying how people make choices.
Turns out, humans are pretty lousy decision-makers. We fall victim to bias, let emotions cloud our judgment, and tire of making choices pretty quickly. But Cerf has also learned that making a handful of really smart choices at the right moment can eliminate the need to make hundreds of smaller, nagging choices. Here are Cerf's recommendations for living a happy, successful, stress-free life.
1. Choose your friends wisely
Cerf has said this is the most important choice a person can make in life.
Since decision-making is both faulty and exhausting, he argues that picking your social circle maximises your chance of reaching happy, fulfilling outcomes. It's based on research that found people's brain waves sync up when they're in each other's presence. So if you want to become a funnier or more physically fit person, Cerf's advice is to seek out funny or physically fit friends. You'll naturally start becoming more like them.
2. Keep track of your luck
Cerf argues that people are much luckier than they think. Each semester, he encourages his students at Northwestern to keep track of times they took a risk and it paid off. Every time they speed on the highway and don't get a ticket, they make a note. Every time they do get a ticket, they make a note. At the end of the month, they can divide their bad outcomes by their good ones. Often, people are surprised to see just how lucky they were, Cerf said.
3. Avoid data overload
Many people like to think that information is the key to unlocking their potential, Cerf said. But the numbers on a scale or the paces counted on a watch don't necessarily change people's habits. Cerf's advice is to stop basing day-to-day choices about fitness and diet on individual numbers. They too easily become the goals themselves instead of a metric for tracking progress.
In his own life, Cerf covers the number on his bathroom scale. The scale logs each weigh-in, but he looks just once at the numbers at end of the week. He said it helps him think less about numbers and more about the bigger trend of weight loss.
4. Create the right budget for you
As a neuroscientist obsessed with choice, money is one of Cerf's biggest interests. He's found that a lot of people struggle to budget properly because they're up against so many timescales for spending and saving.
Paychecks, for example, tend to come twice a month. Bills are paid once a month. People go grocery shopping perhaps four times a month, but eat three meals a day. Cerf's advice for making sense of all these scales is to adjust budgeting around just one.
It might take a few months of experimenting with allotting per-diems or lump sums at the start of the month. But Cerf said the result is less stress and a greater sense of control over finances.
5. Do good for others
Even if you make the right choices for yourself, research has found that you'll probably derive more happiness from helping others, Cerf said. The wisdom applies to spending money on people or donating your time to a cause. In both cases, giving an equivalent amount to others that you might otherwise have given yourself has been shown to boost happiness to a greater degree. They also tend to reduce cases of physical illness and mental duress.