Tag Archives: Barry Schwartz

Are Too Many Choices Leading to Unhappiness?

In the post, “We all married the wrong person,” I began to discuss the effects of having too much choice in our modern Western society. Many of you had such strong reactions to the idea, I promised to provide some more details about The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. If the post intrigues you, check out his book or view a video by Schwartz on YouTube, in which he claims traditional dogmas about freedom and choice are incorrect.

First, let me state up front, that choice can be very good. Without choice in our lives about our careers, our faith, our friends, our homes, our mates, we are doomed to be miserable. We want to be unique, and choice gives us that ability. Schwartz asserts in his book that as the number of choices increases, “the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear.”  

As examples, he talks about the thousands of cereals, salad dressings or electronic stereo systems from which we may choose. Because of the number of choices, our expectations for the product are greatly increased. At some point, increasing the number of choices we have no longer improves our lives. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

In America, where freedom and choice are paramount to many, the idea of too much choice sounds wrong. You can never have enough options, right? We want to keep our options open, so that when new information comes in, we can redirect to a better choice. However, Schwartz says the negative aspects of too much choice escalate until we become overloaded, and at times debilitated. “The fact that some choice is good doesn’t mean that more choice is better,” he says.

I can relate to his points. For example, I mostly shop at only one clothing store. I can choose to shop at thousands of stores, but I don’t have the time or desire to sift through racks or web sites with endless items that probably won’t fit me and I may not like. So limiting my choice to a favorite store that has clothes that fit me well with styles I like and has enough variety makes my life better by saving me time and frustration.

The anxiety of choosing well increases as we select more important things in our lives. My husband and I are currently looking to buy a new family car, which we usually keep for 10 years or more. Since he is a research-driven person who nearly always has some aspect of buyer’s remorse, he is checking out every car type that meets our specifications, and evaluating costs and benefits of every feature. For many, the process is so overwhelming, they avoid it for as long as possible and may never be happy with their final decision.

Then there are more important decisions, such as the choice of mate. Whom you choose as a spouse will dramatically affect every aspect of your entire life. The decision should be made with utmost care. But the decision can indeed be made. I’m sure you, like me, know someone who has such fears of marriage “buyer’s remorse” that he or she moves from relationship to relationship, hoping to find the perfect person, or at least the person who is a bit more perfect than the last one. Some people find a great mate with whom they share passion and children, but they still keep their eyes open at work or social gatherings to make sure they don’t miss out on someone better. Once they get to know that new person, or enter into a long-term relationship with him or her, they learn that person also has faults, just different ones.

“Clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression,” says Schwartz, who suggests at least part of the boom in depression rates may be due to choice overload.

“Many modern Americans are feeling less and less satisfied even as their freedom of choice expands,” he explains. “We do ourselves no favor when we equate liberty too directly with choice. The feelings that may result when we have too many options include regret, feeling of missed opportunities, raised expectations, and feelings of inadequacy. If we have enough of those, we may indeed become depressed.

Schwartz says we need to make good choices about things that matter (yes, marriage is in that category), while having less concern about the things that don’t. He also recommends multiple strategies in his book about how best to deal with potentially overwhelming choices in modern Western society. One of his suggestions is that it would be better for us to embrace certain “voluntary restraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.” Does that sound un-American to you, or can you see the wisdom in his thought process? The other point he makes is that we would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible. Bingo. Stop questioning your choice of mate; instead make the most of what you have. And stop paying attention to what you think others around you have, because you don’t have any idea what goes on behind closed doors.  

What’s your take on the matter? Do you feel like you can ever have too many options? Do you want to be “free” to change any decision at any point, in hopes that you can continually improve your life? Or do you think that constantly questioning your decisions decreases your satisfaction?

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