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Think smarter about what's "good"

People like to think of things as "good" or "bad", such as:

  • Trans fats are bad for you and broccoli is good for you.

  • Lethargy is bad but exercise is good.

  • Being cowardly is bad, while having courage is good.

A problem with putting something in the "good" bucket of your mind, though, is that this can lead to the belief that the more of it there is, the better.

But most goods don’t work that way. It’s far more common for goods to diminish in value as you get more of them, or to be good up to a certain point and then stop being good at all, or even to harm you when you have too much!

By understanding the different ways that value can change with quantity, you can make more rational decisions. By grasping these concepts, you can optimize the way you allocate resources and efforts, avoid wastefulness, and strike a balance that promotes both personal well-being and efficiency - regardless of what decisions you have to make.

The next time you think about something being good, you can remember this article to add some nuance, go one step further, and think about what type of good it is.

Understanding Different Types of Goods

To help you make more rational choices, in this section, we’re going to give you a rundown of 4 types of goods that it can be helpful to know. They can be represented graphically like this:

You might find it useful to keep looking back at this chart as you read about the concepts below.

1️⃣Satiating Goods

Once you have a reasonable amount of these goods, there is no additional benefit to having more, but it also won’t hurt to have more (in realistic quantities). Although it is well-known that many goods have a point at which you will get no value from any more of them, there doesn't appear to be a widely-used term for such goods. We like the phrase 'satiating goods', because your desire or need for them can be satiated.

For example: broccoli. Sure, it is probably healthy to swap 3% of what you eat for broccoli if you’re low in some of the nutrients it provides, but you will actually get no additional net benefit if you go from 20% of your diet being broccoli up to 30%. (Unless, of course, that final ten percent was substituted in place of something unhealthy, like trans fats or mercury-laden food.)

Satiating goods come up quite a bit. They are anything that you only need a certain amount of and any excess won’t be used, such as:

  • Healthy foods: Once you get a certain amount of any healthy food, eating more has no benefit. Yet, people tend to treat healthy foods as though they are unequivocally good.

  • Seating in a venue: In a theater or conference venue, having enough seating for the expected audience is essential. But once there are enough seats for everyone, adding more seats doesn't enhance the experience for attendees, though it doesn’t detract from it either (as long as the extra seating doesn’t spread people out too much).

  • Life jackets on a boat: A boat requires enough life jackets for all passengers and crew. Once this number is met, additional life jackets do not enhance safety, as they are unlikely to be used.

2️⃣Diminishing Goods

It’s always good to have more of these goods, but the amount of value each additional unit gives you diminishes as you get more and more, but never reaches zero (for realistic quantities). 

One example is money: evidence suggests that the amount of life-satisfaction you would get from doubling your income is fixed, regardless of what your income was before the doubling. This means that the extra life-satisfaction you’d experience in going from $30,000 to $60,000 is equal to the extra life-satisfaction you’d experience in going from $500,000 to $1,000,000. But the first one of those increases in life-satisfaction is much cheaper than the second ($30k vs. $500k). So, the value of $30k to someone whose income is $30k is much higher than the value of that same amount of money to someone whose income is $500k. 

Of course, there’s a sense in which the value of money doesn’t diminish: each $1 you own is worth $1, no matter how many other dollars you have. But we’re talking about a more subjective value here; we’re talking about the value goods bring you in terms of your happiness or how important they are to you. When it comes to money, that kind of value diminishes as you get more of it. 

Diminishing goods are probably the most common. Other examples include: 

  • Recreational travel: The initial trips and experiences can be highly rewarding, but over time, the novelty and excitement may diminish, even though they still offer enjoyment.

  • Loving relationships: If you’re at 0 loving relationships and then you get to 1, you’ll be getting a much greater amount of value than if you’re at 100 and then you get to 101. However, your 101st loving relationship isn’t of no value at all.

  • Hours of practice: If you’re starting a new hobby, you’ll find that your first hours of practice give you a large amount of value (in the form of improvement) but that value drops off over time as you have less to learn and make smaller and smaller improvements.

3️⃣Overdosable Goods

Like satiating goods, these are beneficial up to some amount but, unlike satiating goods, further amounts of overdosable goods actually become harmful. Examples of this include:

  • Medicines: Medicines are helpful in appropriate doses but typically harm you at higher dosages.

  • Stretching: Some stretching, especially of body parts with low mobility, may be beneficial, but if you stretch an excessive amount you might actually significantly increase the chance of injury.

  • Courage: It's good to have courage so that you can get yourself to do difficult things that are valuable - but past a certain point, courage yields no additional benefits and could lead to foolhardiness or getting into danger unnecessarily.

4️⃣Linear Goods

Finally, there are linear goods, so-called because the benefit you get from them increases at a constant (linear) rate as you get more of them. Every additional unit provides the same amount of extra happiness or utility; the marginal benefit does not change as more is acquired or consumed.

These are actually quite rare and there is often disagreement over whether something counts as such a good. For example, they might include:

  • Justice: If you value justice intrinsically, then you might think that more justice is always good and the value of justice never diminishes or changes as more is acquired. 

  • Happy lives: There is a debate over the moral value of bringing happy people into the world. Some people think it is morally good to do so (for example, see here). Other people think it’s morally neutral, while still others think it’s morally bad. Those who think it’s morally good to bring more happy people into existence typically also think that each new person is as valuable as all the others and their value does not diminish or change as additional happy people come into existence.

The thing we want to point out here is that linear goods are quite uncommon and their status is often controversial, despite the fact that people tend to think of ‘goodness’ as being linear all the time. But now you know better! Goodness more often gets satiated, diminishes, or even overdoses.

Of course, these are not the only types of goods out there! There are some more complicated goods, with more complicated utility functions, but the ones discussed in this article are a great place to start and reflecting on them will help you make more rational choices.

What should you do with this knowledge? 

Now that you know about different ways that goodness behaves, you can think more rationally about your goals and sources of happiness and avoid the trap of thinking that more of a good thing is always better. 

We suggest that you take some time to consider how these insights might affect your goals. Studies show that goals are more effective if they are approach goals (aiming for something you want) rather than avoidance goals (which focus on the negative), but if your goal is to acquire more of something (e.g. money) or do more of something (e.g. exercise), then you should ask yourself: “What kind of good is it that I’m after?”

  • If you’re aiming for an overdosable good: It's crucial to recognize the limit and avoid crossing it. This means being aware of and respecting recommended dosages, limits, or guidelines, whether it's for physical activities, medical intake, or emotional states like courage.

  • If you’re aiming for a satiating good: It’s not as crucial to know when to stop, but you can save yourself a lot of wasted effort by paying attention to when this good will stop being of value to you. Avoid wasting effort and missing opportunities for other value in your life.

  • If you’re aiming for a diminishing good: These goods don’t have points at which they stop providing value, so it’s worth thinking even more carefully about when to call it quits. You should focus on noticing when the additional time, effort, or cost begins to outweigh the enjoyment or benefit you receive.

  • If you’re aiming for a linear good: Remember that while they may seem straightforward in providing consistent benefits, they are rare and often subject to debate. It's important to critically assess whether your pursuit really is a linear good for you and to be aware of the potential complexities. If you’re confident that the good really is a linear one and it has a high value for you, then you might just have found something worth dedicating your life to!

If you want to know more about what makes you happy, so that you can better figure out which goods you might want to aim for, you could try our tool Your Greatest Sources of Pleasure, which will ask you some questions to identify the things that make you happy and then:

The next time you notice yourself thinking of something as being good, it may be worth considering what kind of good it is and asking “When would I have enough?”


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