Choice and Change: How Much Freedom Do We Have?
One of the benefits of adulthood is the opportunity to make choices. Children often bemoan the lack of control they have over their lives. Parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, police, even strangers they encounter tell them what to do on a daily basis and they are expected to comply or face consequences. Of course, some chafe against authority and others lower their heads and succumb reluctantly. A third group evaluates the guidance and decides for themselves which path to take.
Adults who offer choices, such as, “Would you like to wear the blue pants or red pants?” or “Would you like oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast?” give them a sense of autonomy, even while providing structure.
I recall a conversation with a child many years ago who complained that: “Adults get to do whatever they want. It’s easy for them.” I smiled and reminded him that while adults have greater freedom, along with that comes additional responsibility for their decisions. Now, as an adult, he understands that dynamic and is more mindful of his choices. He has learned the art, as his wife states, of “adulting.”
Sound decision-making is a skill that can be learned, regardless of whether it is modeled for children by their elders. There is a story about two men who grew up with an alcoholic father. One followed in his father’s footsteps and the other abstained completely. When asked what prompted their behavior, both replied, “I watched my father.” On some level, the man who chose the path of sobriety knew he didn’t want to end up with the consequences of drinking that he observed his father and brother experiencing.
As adults, we are faced with choices throughout the day, from how late to stay up, to what time to rouse ourselves from bed, and what to eat for breakfast, from what to wear, to what route to take to work. We choose whether to engage in health-inducing habits or high-risk behaviors.
On a deeper level, we choose what to believe spiritually and who we can trust. We enter into dating, mating, and relating based on our personal criteria. We have the right to determine our career options and follow our passion and purpose into a job that suits us.
What is the impact of a sense of autonomy?
On the NPR podcast called The Hidden Brain, a recent topic was “The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?” The host, Shankar Vedantam, spoke with Columbia professor of psychology Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing. She expressed with certainty, that we feel happy when we believe we have control and can exhibit a sense of autonomy, which is true whether our choices are minor or major in terms of the impact on our lives.