Does an Abundance of Choices Make Us Happy?

Abudance of Choices by Zak Greant
Abudance of Choices by Zak Greant

Imagine you’re looking for a new house. There are plenty of realtors willing to help you, and you can take your pick of them. They will offer you houses (probably a lot of houses) that more or less fit your needs. You have probably chosen a realtor whose offer is quite wide, and you know that more options lead to better final decision. So now, you have your offers and you have to choose. When you finally decide, there are even more decisions you have to make. What house insurance should you get? What kind of mortgage should you take? What furniture should you buy? What colour will you choose to paint your rooms? Don’t worry: whatever you want to do, you always have a lot of options. You have your freedom of choice. But is this a good thing?

More is Less

“The question then is: are people actually liberated by all this freedom? A study came out more than ten years ago, that actually showed that when you give people too much choice, instead of being liberated, they get paralyzed,” says psychologist Barry Schwartz in an interview for the European Magazine. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz talks about why modern Western societies suffer from increasing trends of unhappiness. The main reason he found is that we’re given too much choice. He doesn’t refer only to material things like buying houses, salad dressings, or ties. We can always ask, “Have I chosen the right partner?” or “Wouldn’t I be happier in another work?” He believes that it is our awareness of the alternatives that has corrupted our ability to be happy and satisfied. It’s the excess of options — this extreme freedom of choice in our lives — that creates pressure to choose correctly and leads to an acute awareness of when we fail to make the right choice.

What Do You Prefer?

Middle Path by Fabio Bruna
Middle Path by Fabio Bruna

On the other hand, most of us prefer having more choices to having no choice. The more serious the decision we have to make, the more options we require. In a speech Schwartz gave in 2005, he noted that there is an ideal middle path that makes us most satisfied. The point is that it’s not an abundance of choices that’s ideal, although the society seems to say so. He describes the message of our culture: “If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. […] The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.” His study explains that this is not true.

What Makes Us Happy?

Schwartz remembered times when he didn’t need to decide when he wanted to buy new jeans — there was only one option. After years, he came to shop and he was suddenly bombarded by many kinds of jeans. After an hour, he bought the best fitting jeans he had ever had, but he felt worse. His expectations about new jeans went up and he was afraid that he could do better — that he could have decided better. So his recipe for happiness came to him: “The secret of happiness is low expectations.” The question is: can we have low expectations when we see so many wonderful alternatives all around us? How can we work to achieve that ideal balance between options and desires?

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