The Happiness-Choice Paradox: Why More Choices Makes Us Unhappy
I always thought that having more choices was always better. It just naturally made sense.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, I would somehow end up unsatisfied. This became especially apparent when I went to restaurants with large menus.
“I hate it when restaurants have pages and pages of stuff on their menu,” I said one day after a meal. “It makes it so hard to decide what to order.”
“Having more on the menu is good. It gives you more options,” my friend replied.
“Hmm,” I said pensively.
Although skeptical, it did seem to make sense. In a society of endless possibilities, we were always taught to expect more. Gone were the restrictions of the past! We could do anything we set out to do if we put our minds to it; the possibilities were endless.
But if we had all these possibilities at our fingertips, why weren’t people happy?
It turns out that having too many choices can actually be detrimental to our well-being.
Psychology professor Barry Schwartz argues that having an infinite number of choices is paralyzing and exhausting. We set unrealistic expectations and blame ourselves for choosing what we believe to be the wrong decision.
While we believe that having more choices is good overall, his results show the exact opposite: in a society with greater possibilities than ever before, people are experiencing higher rates of depression.
There is a remarkable study involving jam. In a supermarket, there was a display table with 24 varieties of jam that people were allowed to sample. On another day, there was a display table with only six varieties of jam. While the larger display attracted more attention, people were one-tenth less likely to buy compared to the smaller display.
In later studies, the principle of overwhelming choices leading to indecision was applied to other choices. Results show that the principle applied just as strongly to matters as trivial as soft drinks to life decisions involving job satisfaction.
Dreaming is Easier Than Doing
Have you ever aspired to make a big change in your life? Maybe it involved visiting a new city, getting the job of your dreams, or trying something out of your comfort zone.
I admit, it’s fun to dream. All sorts of possibilities float up in our heads as we imagine a different scenario from the one we’re currently faced with.
But reality is much more difficult. Taking the steps to get what we want can be grueling, and when we give up something, there’s a lingering feeling of regret. Should I have tried harder? Was there something I could have done differently?
We are often left with a painful sense of regret at the decisions we made. It seems easy to punish ourselves somehow by questioning our choices.
Know When to Choose
When we wake up every day, we’re faced with a myriad of decisions. What should I wear? What should I eat for breakfast? Should I buy a new pair of pants?
The truth is, we have a finite amount of energy. Each decision we makes takes away some of our energy, which gradually drains us as the day goes on. By the end of the day, we’re too tired to think through large decisions.
I used to have a boss who would wear a blue shirt every day.
“Same blue shirt,” people would joke.
Whether it was the same shirt or a new shirt, I’m not sure. What I do know now is that there is a reason behind it. Minimizing the trivial decisions we make on a daily basis can provide us with the focus and concentration we need for the larger decisions.
Be Happy With the Decision You Make
Looking back at your decisions and wishing you had chosen differently leads to regret, which is one of the most painful things we can face. I think we need to recognize that when we have chosen, it was the best option based on what we knew at the time.
And even if we could have chosen differently, the alternatives have an entirely different set of consequences, some of which could be negative. No choice is perfect, and recognizing this is the first step towards satisfaction.
At the same time, we are continually striving to better ourselves, whether in our careers, relationships or health. Doing so gives us a sense of meaning and purpose.
Do you find yourself frustrated by the choices you make?
Remember, you’re only human.
Being human means wanting better things, while at the same time embracing the imperfection that is life.
And that’s okay.