The wide range of choices we face in modern life, from which toothpaste to buy to which career to pursue, actually can hold us back and reduce our satisfaction.
Although ‘freedom of choice’ sounds like the ideal prospect, it can imprison us rather than set us free. Perhaps you agonize over the ‘perfect’ present for everyone on your Christmas list, and end up panic-buying at the last minute. Or maybe you even wonder about the other partners who may be available if you ended your perfectly-good relationship. The sense of control that choice can bring is quickly overtaken by confusion if too many options are available. In recent years, our choices for lifestyle, work and even appearance have multiplied. Few areas of our lives remain untouched by choice.
On one hand, breadth of choice enables us to express our individuality. On the other, it is overwhelming and we risk choosing nothing at all. This can have devastating consequences further down the line. For example, not saving money for your retirement because of the baffling array of investment options means you may pay the price later.
Psychologists have studied the issue of excess choice and found that more variety doesn’t lead to increased happiness. In the U.S., happiness levels fell as increased affluence brought greater choices. This is caused by a combination of regretting missed opportunities and the raised expectations brought by multiple options. These expectations often can’t be matched by reality. Experts say that it’s preferable to be content with ‘good enough’, rather than exhaust yourself seeking the ‘best’ in all situations. Apart from anything else, the time saved during shopping can be put to better use.
If you agonize over your options in most, or all, areas of your life, here are some tips to increase your satisfaction:
- Try to accept that settling for good enough has real benefits, so you spend less time deliberating.
- Let some small decisions, such as everyday purchases, become automatic, to free up time to be choosy when it really matters.
- Limit your choice by not seeking out alternatives when you’re already content with what you’ve got. For example, if you are satisfied in your current job, don’t always be on the lookout for better opportunities.
- Accept that opportunities may be missed and the grass may be greener.
- Commit to your choice and enjoy what you have. This shift in approach soon will become automatic. The other DVDs in the shop can wait for another day. A drama or documentary will be more rewarding for having your undivided attention, rather than being interrupted by aimless channel-surfing.
- Remember that one decision rarely has the life-changing power that we think. This helps you view it as less crucial and stress-inducing.
- Keep expectations realistic. The thrill of new purchases or relationships inevitably wears off over time, no matter which path you take.
- As far as possible, try not to be influenced by clever marketing. If you’ve just bought a new car, for instance, concentrate on something else when a car commercial comes on TV, or point out to yourself all its flaws and the reasons why your choice was the best.
- Set up routines to simplify your life, such as having a regular breakfast or radio station you habitually choose. Keep to a list when grocery shopping.
The negative impact of choice doesn’t end with reduced happiness. It can deny us the reward of spending a lot of time on something we commit to, whether this be a relationship, a goal, or a good cause. Flitting between options can reduce our well-being and sense of overall achievement. Choosing to settle for specific aims not only will boost your contentment, it will also inspire those around you to do the same.
Reference and other resources
Schwartz, Barry. July 2004. Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (HarperCollins).