How to Use the Concept of Parsimony to Make Your Life Better

Jon Hawkins

Will living a simpler life make us happy?

At its core, life’s pretty simple. We wake up, work, eat, sleep, and repeat. So why does it feel so darn complicated?

It’s probably because, as human beings, we naturally make things harder than they are. Life can be boring. Facing a challenge gives our life meaning, and working to resolve it gives us purpose. Psychologists have called this phenomenon “complexity bias.

In doing so, are we making our lives worse? What if simpler were better?

Parsimony (also known as Occam’s Razor) is a Philosophical Razor that argues just that. It was coined by scholastic philosopher William of Occam (c. 1287–1347,) who claimed that in all situations, the simplest theory is the best theory. The theory states when faced with two competing hypotheses that come to the same conclusion, we should choose the simplest explanation (or in Philosophical terms: the one that makes the fewest assumptions).

This razor is commonly used in Philosophy and Science as a heuristic to make decisions quickly and effectively. But, if applied correctly, could it make our lives better?

“In general, we consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypotheses possible, in so far as there is nothing in the observations to provide a significant objection to such a procedure.” — astronomer Ptolemy (circa 150 CE)

Understanding Parsimony

As Occam's Razor is rooted in Science, Philosophy, and Theology, it’s used to answer a lot of cosmological questions about the nature of the universe. It claims to have the answer to questions like: Does God Exist? and Did the big bang create the Universe?

It’s most often known as Ontological Parsimony. With it’s most common (academic) formulation being:

“Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

What does this mean? It reasserts what I have already mentioned. Other things being equal, where theories T1 and T2 lead to the same conclusion, the ontologically parsimonious theory is the one that makes the least assumptions.

So if T1 gets to a conclusion, and T2 gets to the same conclusion but is ontologically committed to the existence of an entity that T1 isn’t, then T1 makes the least assumptions and is correct. That feels awfully abstract, so let’s talk through an example.

Everyday Explanations

Imagine you’ve just bought a cup of coffee. You take a sip. To your surprise, it’s too hot. You burn your mouth, and say ow! There are several explanations for this causal relationship:

  • The warm coffee touching your lips caused you to experience pain.
  • You experienced pain because, at the time the coffee touched your lips, you accidentally bit your lip. The hot drink didn’t cause anything.
  • You didn’t actually drink coffee, or experience pain. You’re living in a giant simulation, and you just dreamt that you did.

The most parsimonious explanation is the first one. It makes the least assumptions — it doesn’t claim we bit our lip or are in a simulation; it just states things happened as they actually did.

These three claims highlight why parsimony is so important. For every phenomenon in existence, it’s possible to create an infinite number of incorrect explanations. We need a theoretical tool for sifting through and getting rid of the implausible ones. Occhams Razor does just that.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. — Confucius”

Choosing The Simplest Answer

Picture this. It’s only 10 am, and you are already having the worst day imaginable. Your bus was delayed, you tripped and ripped your clothes on the way to work, and your boss has threatened to fire you.

How do we explain these events? As my previous example shows, there’s an infinite number of explanations. But some possible candidates include:

  • You’re just having a bad day. There’s no need to panic, we all have them and tomorrow’s a new day.
  • The world’s out to get you. It’s like a spiritual being is looking over you and deliberately making things worse. No matter what you do, things won’t get better — you’re cursed to experience suffering for all eternity.
  • Someone you know is going out of their way to sabotage you and make your life worse.

According to Psychologists, when we’re upset we often have experience catastrophizing. It’s a cognitive distortion that leaves us fearing the worst. Sometimes, we assume that no matter what we do, things won’t improve. Looking over the possible explanations for your experiences, it’s clear that this belief is unfounded. According to parsimony, the first option is the simplest and therefore correct.

You are just having a bad day. There’s no mass conspiracy against you, the world isn’t causing you suffering. It’s just a range of events that happened by coincidence. Rather than dwelling on them and fearing the worst, look forward to a fresh start tomorrow when things will start to go your way.

Resolve Your Problems Simply and Effectively

The act of overcomplicating things could be making our lives worse. Because rather than completing things easily, we’re stressing and worrying about them.

According to parsimony, when faced with a task — be that at work or home, we should always choose the action that leads to our desired result in the simplest and easiest way. That doesn’t mean cutting corners. For something to be the most parsimonious, we still need to get to the same conclusion or result, just with as few steps as possible.

As financial advisor Michael F. Kay states, humans seem to overcomplicate everything. We can’t even make a choice at a deli shop without overcomplicating which sandwich we want. Rather than just making a decision, we worry and stress about making the wrong decision.

Most of us have one clear aim that underlies our decisions — we want to be happy. And in most situations (like in a sandwich deli,) any one of our available decisions will make us happy. If that’s so, then it’s parsimonious to stop overthinking, instead, make a snap decision and be happy with its outcome. That’s just one example. In other situations, remaining parsimonious may force us to:

  • Avoid unnecessary steps and extra work that achieves nothing.
  • Stop procrastinating, and just do the job.
  • Try to perfect everything when the desired result has already been achieved.

The answers to your problems are easier to resolve than you think. Acting in the simplest way possible will save us from unnecessary stress and worry.

Final Thoughts

Despite commonly being used to resolve abstract issues in Philosophy, Science, and Religion, Occam’s Razor could be used to improve our daily lives.

It tells us to live in the simplest way possible. When things don’t go our way, it tells us to stop catastrophizing — the world isn’t out to get us, and we can easily correct the things that go wrong.

When faced with a challenge, the theory of parsimony also tells us to stop worrying or stressing, and instead fulfill the task in the easiest and most straightforward way possible.

“Live a simple life; you will own the most beautiful treasures of the world!” — Mehmet Murat ildan

I write about self-improvement, life lessons, philosophy, psychology & business — to help you reach your full potential.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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