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“How can you be bored when you have a room full of toys and games?”
I asked my daughter when she stayed home sick from school. Put all exaggeration about my childhood aside. She has a lot more things to play with than I did. Yet despite numerous choices, she’s dissatisfied. My daughter is not unique. Most of my friends’ children are the same. For generations we’ve been taught greater choice will make us happy. Turns out the prevailing wisdom is wrong.
The Paradox of Choice
Convinced I was on to something, I researched the connection between happiness and number of choices. In a TED talk about 10 years ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz explained why the huge number of options we have makes us unhappy. He acknowledged there are benefits to having alternatives. But having an enormous number of choices often paralyzes decision-making. So people don’t take any action to improve their lives because they cannot decide which one is best.
Further, Schwartz identified four bad effects of a large number of choices:
- Regret or anticipation of regret. Your satisfaction in a good decision is reduced because with so many other options one of them must have been closer to perfect.
- Opportunity costs. No matter how good a choice is others must have had better features. So, you’re dissatisfied even when you know you made the right decision.
- Escalation of expectations. Because we’re so used to a huge number of options, the one we choose cannot live up to our expectations.
- Self-Blame. When we had limited choices we could accept discontent as the way things are. But when we have so many alternatives, if we choose a bad one we have only ourselves to blame.
Happiness requires striking a balance between too many and too few choices.
How to Effectively Limit Choices
Schwartz and I part company over how to solve this dilemma. He proposes having an outside entity constrain the choices of people in wealthy nations. The extra resources can then be used to increase the options for those living in poorer countries. The problem arises in assuming the optimal number of choices is the same for all people and for all aspects of life.
For myself, having a huge array of electronic gadgets to choose from does not make me happy. But I have a friend who LOVES comparing and deciding which one is best. (So I call him and he makes the choice for me.)
The best solution is for each of us to determine the amount of a choice that is optimal for our life and set constraints accordingly. Here’s how:
- Refuse to believe that more choices are necessarily good.
- Are you content with your choices in a particular area of your life? Don’t think you have to change them to find greater contentment. You may end up with less.
- Identify an aspect of life you think you’ll enjoy exploring. Test it out. Are you happier? I love trying new varieties of chocolate and ice cream. I go to great lengths to find them.
By choosing to limit your choices you will find greater happiness.
Where in your life are you overwhelmed by choices? Please comment below.