(Why the freedom of choice may be making you unhappy.)
One of the best books I read last year was “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz.
He challenges the widesread belief that “choice is beautiful” because agony comes when having to choose between too many options. Furthermore, after finally choosing, we experience the inevitable regret and wonder about the options not chosen, which ultimately diminishes whatever happiness we sought in the first place. Schwartz believes that is why Americans have a higher rate of clinical depression when compared to other countries. Simply put, we have too many options.
Can that be? In our great Unites States there is too much freedom? When we are growing up we are told that we can be anything we want in the world. So we go through college agonizing over our major and then we ultimately spend our twenties switching jobs doing nothing related to what we thought we wanted in the first place. The grass is always greener so we always wonder what it would be like to be a doctor, lawyer, or famous actor. In poorer countries where you have a lot less options you may grow up and work at your parent’s market or as a janitor in a motel and you’re happy because that’s all you know. You don’t have the same type of options so you are content with what you have. Whatever you do is merely a job and it pays the bills so you can pursue your passions, the real things that define you.
My favorite example in the book is the abundance of spaghetti sauce options in your local supermarket. There are literally thirty types of spaghetti sauce to choose from. I can only imagine a kid from Bangledash walking in to one of our supermarkets, looking at all the obese Americans and asking, “why do you guys need that many types of spaghetti sauce?”
The worst type of person is someone they call a “maximizer”. This is the type of person that always tries to make the best possible decision based on the options presented. Have you ever been listening to a song on your iPod that you were enjoying but you changed tracks to find the best possible song for the moment? Then you may be a “maximizer”, the person most susceptible to being unhappy. You’re also limiting the joy spike of surprise when your favorite song unexpectedly comes up on the radio and you yell at your friends to “turn it up!” But why is being a “maximizer” so bad? Because you will never settle and have a higher chance of regretting the decisions that you eventually do make.
So what’s the solution? We have to try to limit the amount of time it takes to make a small decision and only focus on large decisions. The type of spaghetti sauce you cook or the songs you play don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. So just let the song play or choose your Ragu quickly. With too much choice comes agony. That’s the simplicity of a business model like the In N’ Out menu when compared to the twenty page novel they give you at the Cheesecake Factory. People are under the illusion that “choice is beautiful” but in actuality we like things simple; we need to be told what to do.
So what about the large decisions, the ones that will affect our lives. We need to set a time period to make a decision (ideally nothing greater than a day because anything more will make you second guess), then make your decision, and stick with it and don’t regret it once it’s made.
So in theory it may be beautiful to live in a metropolis like New York or Los Angeles where you have 1,000 different Thai restaurants to choose from every night, but making that kind of decision can be overwhelming. So we usually just go with the one closest to our apartment or off the recommendations of expert critics or friends. But that’s just about small decisions like food and music, what about when you have to make this decision about other people? What about the paradox of choice when it comes to dating…
[Part Two on Thursday]
[Photo: View from the bleachers Highline Park in New York City, New York.]