Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.

How can we improve well-being with good decision-making?


  • All pleasurable activities start out very enjoyable, but within a short period we get used to them.
  • The acquisition of knowledge drives learning and generates pleasure.
  • The anticipation of an uncertain reward, as we all as the reward itself, causes intense excitement.

Good decision-making requires weighing the value of immediate rewards versus delayed rewards. For instance, would we prefer to consume one piece of chocolate or five pieces? The answer may not be as simple as you think.

Try the following tools to help you evaluate how you make decisions.

1. Savoring. Elementary economics tells us that the consumption of most goods and services is subject to diminishing satisfaction. All pleasures (e.g., a cup of coffee in the morning, an afternoon walk) follow this law of diminishing sensitivity, and few aspects of life escape this reality.

The saying that you can’t have too much of a good thing means that for any good that you enjoy (say, a chocolate bar), the more you consume will always lead to greater joy, but not to extra pleasure. That is why people eat chocolate bars in pieces, waiting and savoring. Pacing reward means scaling back stimulation deliberately in order to prolong enjoyment.

7 Factors to Consider for Making Better Decisions

2. Less is more. This concept refers to a minimalist approach—sometimes, having less of something is beneficial. For example, more information about others leads, on average, to liking them less. Upon meeting, individuals tend to read into others what they wish and find evidence of similarity, leading to liking. Over time, however, as evidence of dissimilarity is revealed, the liking decreases. Anthropologist Helen Fisher writes that people fall in love with individuals who are somewhat mysterious.

Experts say that “playing hard to get” is an effective strategy for attracting a partner, especially in the context of long-term love, in which a person wishes to be sure of their partner’s commitment. Playing hard to get ensures that the other person is ready to make a commitment to an enduring relationship.

3. Unexpected joy. The brain reward system not only responds to the presence of reward, but also to the expectation of reward. Part of the appeal of live sporting events is their inherent unpredictability. People keep coming back, as if addicted, to the joy of experiencing unexpected rewards.

We also learn better when we are surprised. In a classroom setting, students are more persuaded by a surprising explanation that goes against their expectations.

4. The power of curiosity. Curiosity can be defined as the gap between what one knows and what one wants to know. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation. Acquiring information that one is curious about is intrinsically pleasurable and facilitates learning. Similarly, acquiring secondhand knowledge about other people’s actions and intentions (otherwise known as gossip) can also produce reward.

5. Wanting vs. Liking. Usually, liking and wanting pleasant rewards go together as two sides of the same coin. Liking and wanting are linked over time by the learning system. For example, when the consumption of a highly liked food causes an allergic reaction, people learn to avoid that food item.

A breakdown of the balance between liking and wanting can lead to bad decisions (or choices that are not liked). We see this in more ordinary desires such as buying exercise equipment, joining a health club, and compulsive behaviors, where there is a possible disconnection between the desire and experience of pleasure from these choices. Achieving the right balance may be a key to happiness.

7 Factors to Consider for Making Better Decisions

6. Conditioned response. The psychological concept of conditioning suggests that if a behavior is followed by a rewarding experience, an animal (or individual) becomes more likely to repeat the rewarding behavior at a later time. For example, a dog performs a trick to get a dog treat. If learning that playing video games, or shopping, or eating is followed by a reduction in distress, an individual will be more likely to engage in the act in the future.

Conditioning means that the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the people in your environment are pushing your buttons, activating feelings that control your behaviors. Thus, it is important to bring awareness to your conditioned responses. The more you observe them mindfully, the less force they will have.

7. I will start tomorrow. It always feels better to defer unpleasant efforts. When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives. But our desire for a reward increases when we are closer to it, and unless we somehow commit ourselves to our previous preferences, we are likely to give in. For example, ice cream may seem like a bad idea when considered a few days before it appears at a birthday party, but as the party approaches, the ice cream becomes ever more appealing while the dietary consequences diminish in importance. Self-awareness improves decision-making.

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