We're all familiar with "Analysis, Paralysis". What may come as a surprise is that we are now paralysed by choice in our everyday lives. As a consequence of this, we are less happy than we were before we had such abundance of choice.
In "The Paradox of Choice", Barry Schwartz eloquently explains why this is the case. It begins with the assumption that we maximise welfare of our society by maximising individual freedom. It follows, then, that we maximise individual freedom by maximising individual choice.
This is not a bad assumption to make when we haven't got much to begin with. However, we have long passed the tipping point. Every aspect of our material lives is saturated with choice. In our healthcare system, we are given multiple options, instead of told by doctors what to do (thus, shifting the burden of responsibility onto us). Our technologies allow us to invent our identity every day of our lives, instead of inheriting one. There was a time when the default assumption was that we'd get married as soon as we could and have children as soon as we could, but, now, we wonder not just to whom, but when would be a good time to do it - if at all. Technology allows us to work every waking minute from wherever we want, so we take a battery of gadgets with us wherever we go and must constantly divide our time and attention.
In other words, our lives have become a do-it-yourself kit. Big things, small things, material things, lifestyle things - we have an abundance of options. At some point, this became something negative.
First of all, it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. People find it difficult to choose anything at all and often put off important decisions into the future, until it's punitive, or too late.
Second, if we manage to overcome our paralysis and make a decision, we end up less satisfied with the choice we made than if we'd had fewer options to begin with. That's because if what we get isn't "perfect", we can easily imagine that we could have made a different choice that would have been better and this feeling of regret detracts from the enjoyment. We suspect that there are Opportunity Costs involved in our decision, so that the way we value something depends upon what we compare it to - again, detracting from our satisfaction.
Finally, there is an escalation of expectations. All the choice makes us feel it's possible to do better, but we feel worse. More choice increases expectations. If you had lower expectations to begin with, you're going to be more satisfied. If what you get falls short of your expectations, you can't enjoy it.
Clinical depression is on the rise. It's possible that a reason for this could be unreasonably high expectations. When you live in a world where there is little choice, you can blame the world for your unhappiness. When you have infinite options and the choice is yours, you have nobody to blame but yourself. We do well objectively, but feel relatively worse.
We are afflicted by mass affluence. It is a peculiar problem of wealthy, industrialised nations.
"Everything was better back when everything was worse". In a world of limited options, there is room to be pleasantly surprised. But we can't be pleasantly surprised when we have high expectations. The secret to happiness, then, is to set low expectations and enjoy the ride.
For additional articles on how to achieve happiness, on why "materialism makes us sad", and the importance of "awe", check out this link.
What do you think...?
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Yes, if you find yourself wondering if your smartphone will work in the shower it is a bad sign. It's the only time during waking hours we are (usually) alone and off the grid.
I recall some research that happily married couples think their spouse is better looking than they actually are - and happy in their delusion one assumes.
There's a good animation on the choice paralysis aspects here (once you chose a mobile phone plan you open yourself to anxiety about whether it was the best one - it probably wasn't):