Choices make us unhappy???!!!!!!
By JUDITH TIMSON
Globe and Mail: Wednesday, March 17, 2004 -
When it comes to decision making, we all have our black holes -- matters large
or small about which we find it agonizing to decide. Those of us who pride
ourselves on our decisiveness at work, for example, might be embarrassed to have
any of our colleagues see us at a video store.
On more occasions than I like to admit, I have walked purposefully in to rent a
video, stood staring for what seems like an eternity at the racks and racks of
movies and then much to my despair, been unable to commit to spending a mere two
hours with any of the possibilities. I reach for a comedy and think, no, that's
too lightweight, then a drama until I imagine the labour-intensity of just
sitting through it. Finally, smiling weakly at my friendly neighbourhood
proprietor, who has even held up pictures of Johnny Depp to spur me on, I exit
the store, shame-faced and empty-handed.
According to American author and academic Barry Schwartz, I have just
experienced a modern malaise that he examines in his entertaining new book The
Paradox of Choice (published by HarperCollins). We have too much choice in
modern society, he argues, and that choice is making us unhappy.
Mr. Schwartz, who teaches social theory and social action at the prestigious
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, writes that rampant consumer appetites,
especially in North America, have resulted in a scale of choice that eventually
becomes counter-productive, whether it's choosing the perfect chocolate-chip
cookie or deciding which company to work for.
The average American, by age 32, he says, has already worked for nine different
companies. People switch jobs to live in another city, they switch because they
are bored, and they switch because, in fact, switching and not staying has
become a way of life. It means, he says in his book, "that the questions 'Where
should I work?' and 'What kind of work should I do?' are never resolved. Nothing
is ever settled."
Now before you conclude that the author is just another middle-aged man
befuddled by the dynamism of modern working life, Mr. Schwartz makes it clear he
is not in favour of a society in which there is no choice.
That would obviously be intolerable, especially in this, the age of the
individual, where you can customize everything from your cup of specialty coffee
to, with the flexibility of the workplace, even how you want to do and deliver
Having choices not only improves the quality of our lives, Mr. Schwartz says, it
gives us autonomy which is crucial to our mental health.
But he says, we've now got an overload of choice unparalleled in human history,
and as a culture "enamoured of freedom, self-determination and variety," we are
reluctant to give up any options. Our insistence on clinging to such a wide
variety of choices contributes to "bad decisions, to anxiety, stress and
dissatisfaction, even to clinical depression."
It's an interesting though not infallible theory, and in its major emphasis on
consumer choices -- the hell of deciding, for instance, on a long-distance
provider package -- Mr. Schwartz runs the risk of looking like a ridiculously
overprivileged North American who has nothing better to do than lament the
abundance all around him while people in other realities would settle for clean
drinking water and an end to armed conflict.
He had his own epiphany for instance, several years ago when he innocently went
into a Gap store decisnd asked for a pair of jeans.
"Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy or extra baggy?" the
sales clerk asked him. "Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed or distressed?
Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?"
Overwhelmed, he nonetheless eventually walked out with a pair of jeans. But it
did occur to him that "buying a pair of pants should not be a day-long project."
I think he's on to something. Forget jeans. Higher education, for example, has
become so consumer-oriented, so commodified, that students and their parents
turn themselves inside out in an agonizing quest to choose "the perfect fit"
when several universities would be not only good but excellent choices.
Seemingly everything is up for grabs -- students can study anything and choose
to be anything -- but they are fretting over and delaying making their choices.
Obligation -- to make a living, to get on with life -- seems less and less a
The number of baby-boom parents who are seriously concerned about their
university-age children actually committing to viable careers is growing, but
this paralysis of choice may be something the boomer generation brought upon
We are, after all the "President's Choice" set, as anxious to snare the perfect
heirloom tomatoes for our salads as we are to score the best school for our
children. Our mantra is only the best will do.
Mr. Schwartz identifies two distinct types of decision makers. There is the "maximizer"
-- someone who wants only the best and conducts intensive searches to find it,
and still remains haunted by the notion that something better might be around
And then there is the "satisficer" -- someone with high standards who
nonetheless settles on something -- a job, for example -- that is certainly good
enough, and who doesn't worry constantly about missed opportunities.
To no one's surprise, maximizers seem to be unhappier than satisficers -- they
are endlessly on the hunt for something better. They suffer more regret over
their decisions, and they get less satisfaction from the choices they do make.
So how do we improve our choice-making capabilities and get off of what
psychologists call the "hedonic treadmill," in which we keep striving for more
and more variety that seems to satisfy us less and less?
Mr. Schwartz concludes we would be better off seeking what is "good enough"
instead of what is best, better off if we lowered our expectations of the
results of those decisions. Surprisingly, we would even be better off, he
argues, if more of the decisions we made were non-reversible, although that
obviously works more with material goods than it does with careers.
Mr. Schwartz also advises people to consciously consider on a daily basis what
they are grateful for: not just a good job, or a solid sense of self, but small
pleasures such as the sun streaming in through the window in the morning.
One small pleasure I'm grateful for is that the next time we want to rent a
movie, my husband has agreed to go the video store instead of me. Let him suffer
the agony of indecision.