Three Reasons Why Numbered Lists Can Make You Unhappy

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If aliens are studying us by monitoring the internet, then they have surely concluded two things: humans have an insatiable appetite for numbered lists and images of small animals. (Lists of animal images? Pretty much the Holy Grail.)

The prevalence of critters is no mystery: they’re cute. It’s also no accident that you see so many numbered lists online.

Conventional blogger wisdom is that these “list posts” are a sure-fire hit because once a person starts reading a list, they feel compelled to finish it. Also, that a reader appreciates having a defined reward for their reading effort. There are list posts naming the reasons why list posts are great.

Now, I tend to write more freeform articles, but I’m not above a list post. (Seven things you should know about sleep, anyone?) They can be fun and informative. They can also reinforce unhealthy habits of behavior and mind and otherwise impede your having long-term happiness. Read on for your defined reward.

1. They Feed Your Craving for Instant Gratification

The very appeal of a list post—that you’re a click away from a quick solution to boredom or a problem you face—is like that of fast food. It fills a need quickly and might be tasty going down, but what you gain in time savings you sacrifice in quality.

Now, this is a very broad statement, and it doesn’t apply equally to all list posts. After all, if you’re looking to buy a new computer, reading a ranking of the best ones could be very helpful and an efficient use of time. Or, if you’re headed out on a date and need a quick refresher on the top 10 things you shouldn’t say to “him” or “her,” then a good list post might be a better option than speed-reading Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

But then there’s the dark side of the internet. The cat videos. Lists of actresses who try and fail to look ugly in moviesnice things that men do that are also creepycommon words you may be mispronouncingthings that make your memory worse than you think.

I’m willing to bet that nearly everyone reading the last paragraph felt a degree of curiosity arise as they read one or more of those topics, ranging from a faint itch to an strong urge to click. Hopefully you're still with me!

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Now, granted, there are darker things on the internet than a cat dressed as a sundae, eating a banana. Some of those links offer a fun reprieve from a busy or stressful life and others offer interesting information. So, what’s wrong with them?

It isn’t the content; it’s that you clicked on this article—the one you’re reading right now—just a minute ago because you were interested in how to be happier in your life, not to watch cat videos or learn about male creepiness.

If you clicked away, you detoured from information that you presumably hope will help you feel better in a long-term, comprehensive way, in favor of some short-term satisfaction. This is the same preference for immediate gratification that can keep you from achieving your full potential in life.

The things that are most important for a lasting sense of well-being, whether online or in the physical world, tend not to be brain candy. Sometimes they are downright mundane and un-fun while you’re doing them.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a break, but when short-term relief or entertainment divert you from accomplishing things that will help keep you happy in the long run—whether it’s giving attention to parts of yourself you’d rather not look at, reading a thought-provoking personal development articleremaining present with the experience of something unpleasant, or just paying your bills—then you have a problem.

What you practice becomes a habit, so the next time you feel the urge to sidetrack yourself when you’re in the middle of something else, pause and think about which of the two options you’ll feel better about having done tomorrow.

2. They Give You Tunnel Vision

Why am I only giving you three reasons why numbered lists can make you unhappy? Why not two or four? Well, it’s because when I considered this topic, these are the three that coalesced for me, given my personal life experience, education, and training. Maybe one or more of them haven’t occurred to you.

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But maybe you could come up with five, because of your different background; maybe even a different five altogether. After reading this article, you might reflect on the matter, resonate with the points I’ve made, and take them to heart. Maybe you’ll find fault with them, or develop your own. Any of these would be great.

But there’s also the possibility that this article came across your screen as just one of a series of predigested list posts, in which case you might have been, or still be, in passive, disembodied, internet-reverie mode while reading it.

If so, you might feel that the topic—which probably hadn't been on your radar before stumbling on this article—has been adequately addressed (or not) for the time and energy you’ve invested, file some information away in your brain (or not), and move on to something else.

By giving this topic some thought and writing an article, I’ve saved you some work and hopefully provided a fresh perspective. But if you were primed to be spoon-fed, as a list post tends to do to you, then you might miss the opportunity for wisdom to emerge from somewhere other than the screen.

3. They Leave You Up To Your Ears in Clutter

The reductionist nature of list posts is part of their appeal: they can help you get your arms around complicated issues and give you some direction. Perhaps as an instinctive reaction to their limited scope, some people become compulsive consumers of lists of pointers in order to develop a more complete picture.

But doing this is like eating a basket of hors d’oeuvres for dinner instead of a well-crafted meal conceived with a range of food groups, flavors, cooking techniques, and presentations, with the goal of a fully satisfying dining experience.

Speaking of food, I used to be an avid reader of Men's Health magazine. A large portion of each month's issue was devoted to the latest research on the health benefits of certain foods, and recommendations to eat more of them. One month I was encouraged to eat more raspberries, flax seeds, walnuts, and salmon. The next month, it was tomatoes, kiwis, spinach, wheat germ, and turkey.

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Do you see the problem? Over years of readership, I had a list of hundreds of food items that I was supposed to eat all the time . . . yet there is only so much food I can eat. Indeed, if I'd have eaten every healthy food as much and as often as recommended, I'd have become obese.

What I needed then was another list: the Top Five Foods To Eat Every Week Out of the 200 You Should Eat Every Week. It never ends.

Taken one bite at a time, articles like that can be very helpful. “Oh, I should choose wild blueberries over conventional ones next time because they are much higher in antioxidants. Ok.” But gulped down regularly, factoids, and get-_____-quick tips just build the illusion of more comprehensive understanding.

Without a framework to organize all the information, those lists leave you in much the same place as you began: overwhelmed with options and confused. If that feels unpleasant for you, you're not alone: research confirms that having too many choices causes some people to become less happy.

So, your appetite for list posts is understandable but they are best taken in moderation, with the bulk of your reading diet made up of more fibrous, thoughtful content, chewed carefully for optimal digestion. Not to say that all list posts lack substance. Hopefully this one didn’t.

But now that you’ve had your appetizer, please check out some other articles for your entrée, and perhaps this one about addiction for dessert. It has a picture of a piece of cake.