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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21 responses to “Are Too Many Choices Leading to Unhappiness?

  1. I live in NYC and am well aware that even though we truthfully have a nearly nearly infinite amount of potential mate choices here (multiple single people in pretty much every bar/resto/concert venue you go to) the chances of finding a sweet, sensitive, thoughtful and committed partner is actually rather small. I found one, and believe me, I was happy to make the choice to be with him, because even though there are lots of options, very few of those seem to meet solid long term partner criteria. Clearly identifying what I was looking for made choosing him a much a less daunting proposition because I knew he was a rare find.

  2. Hi, my name is Lydia, I’m 46 and living in UK. I’m new here. I just wanted to say hello and will be looking forward to seeing what I can learn here!

  3. I think if you have too many options it may tempt you into choosing not to make a choice at all. Which I guess is just another option….

  4. I am currently trying to pick a graduate school and I am going insane — too many choices! I wrote briefly about that very thing on my blog yesterday in fact.


  5. I’ve made terrible choices in the past, but I’m of the mind now that I’m not defined by those choices, and I am empowered every morning with my Cup of Joe to make good ones. Wasn’t Diane Keaton in a movie called Baby Steps? That’s exactly what I’m doing – taking baby steps. Eventually, I think I’ll be able to run.

    • I love the fact that you start anew to make better decisions than in the past. That’s also a choice we have each day. I hope the journey is a good one.

  6. Yes, I agree with these points about too much choice. The multitude of choices we have, which adds to our indecisiveness (it’s hard to choose something and commit when there could always be something better), together with our generation’s tendency to allow our children to participate in everything, makes it difficult for our children to learn decision making, especially if the choice/decision is NO.
    Also, one of my thoughts as I read this is that this abundance of choice affects marriage and divorce, which you state also. I believe our parents stayed married (and were happy, since they chose to be) because they made a choice that at that time was a lifetime, one-time choice. We are too free to make new choices now at any time. There is less commitment now, to relationships, jobs, everything, because so many new choices are always popping up.

    And, yes, one of the negatives to all this choice is the constant looking around and comparing ourselves to others. “Look what they got. What they have. I wish I’d chosen that. I’d be happier if I’d chosen that one. They really like their _______. I don’t like mine that much. ” Etc.
    We need to learn to make the choice to be happy! To choose to say, “this is good. I like it. I’m happy” instead of constantly looking to see what other choices are out there, or how the one we didn’t choose turned out.

    • I agree, Cathy. “I’d be happier if I’d chosen that direction or that thing” is causing unnecessary distress and regret. What’s interesting is that people in relative poverty in other countries can live happier lives than those with more material wealth, so things aren’t related to happiness (although extreme poverty is likely related to unhappiness). We certainly have reduced loyalty to jobs and careers, but businesses also have reduced loyalties to employees, reserving the right to choose a new employee tomorrow to replace us, something they didn’t do a generation ago. So the plethora of choices have affected each area of our lives. I like your advice: choose to say, “This is good. I like it. I’m happy.” Thanks for chiming in! Hope the family is well.

  7. Pingback: Too many choices, not enough time « Adventures with Nari

  8. I don’t know if I agree with Schwartz–I would probably have to read the whole book to get a better perspective on his point of view but based on the excerpts this is what I think:

    I don’t think people get overwhelmed with many choices unless they don’t know themselves and what they prefer, need, want, desire out of life.

    At the age of 48 I know what styles of clothes looks best on me, hence you could have thousands of styles on the racks and I will zero in on the colors and styles that work for me. I know what I need in a marriage parnter (at least I think I do) so I will zero in on those men that fit my requirements–those that don’t I will ignore.

    I like certain types of dogs–each time I got my dogs from the pound I zero in on what I prefer.

    I think the only people who get overwhelmed by choices are those who do not understand themselves and those people who prefer others to do the thinking for them, so that they don’t get overwhelmed.

    When you know what you want and what works for you you don’t worry about your choices.

    That’s what I think.



  9. Thanks for these posts! There are times in life when we just have to walk out our commitments. Marriage is one of those. We have to recognize that there is a reason we say for better or worse in our vows. In life the worse is going to come. It is going to come no matter who we are with or how wonderful they are. it’s in those times we have to begin counting the blessings we have not looking around for a new set of blessings. Keeping our options open ends at the altar or should. Most of us had I Corinthians 13 read during our weddings. If you really listen to those verses you find out love is not about feelings at all. It’s about rock solid commitment that flies in the face of feelings or circumstances.

  10. I think this point is applicable at a much more basic level, especially as a Christian. We are all given freedom by God and through Christ, but freedom isn’t the end of the story. We are not supposed to use our freedoms in a bad way(not everything is beneficial). In fact we are supposed to use our freedoms to submit willingly to God, his laws, and his subordinates. Of course this leads back into marriage, but I’ll leave that for you to ponder on your own. I do believe and the Bible supports the idea that our happiness doesn’t come from freedom, but from submitting our freedoms to the one who is really in authority.

  11. Like a restaurant with pages upon pages of choices – you know they are precooked & microwaved. Those with a small selection cook fresh with the upmost care. Narrowing the playing field is no different. Although almost 30 years ago, when I chose to stop looking in all the “gin joints in town”, I joined a small gym, and he walked into my life.

  12. I do think we have too much choice these days. People are constantly striving for the bigger house, the luxury car, and the expensive shoes. I have friends who say online dating is so difficult because they are always looking for the “next best guy”. From what I see in my job as a social worker, this fast pace and constant decision-making has resulted in an increase of people suffereing with anxiety and depression, it’s becoming an in epidemic. If we could be mindnful and slow down and just “be”, I think this would lead to more satisfaction.

  13. This last sentence of this just previous comment, for me, really says a lot. “Just be”. I’m not sure if it’s really a matter of choices specificly, but rather the motive and vantage point in which you are making choices. No matter what, there will always be a “what if” if you see your life, your happiness, as existing outside yourself. Being mindful is feeling from within; it is the difference between “getting” and “having”.

    Last Tuesday I turned 52, and I’ve never been you know what. I’m beginning to see marriage as perhaps a more intimate circle than what I’ve known before. As I begin asking why, and with what kind of whom, I’m seeing a desire flow outward into deeper water with what I already am and there-by designing a more intimate current around myself.
    This society preaches giving yourself away, giving up who you are in order to benefit someone else; that marriage, children always have to be about loss in order to be love. No matter what society says, your life is always about you. Therefore understanding you cannot give what you are not, you can only experience what is already waiting inside you. This is the ultimate giving, giving who you are without taking from someone else. This to me is the poetry of marriage, and ya, there”ll be everyday crap to work through, but I always want the basis, the foundation, to be poetry.

  14. If one enters into marriage with the idea in their head that they have other options if things don’t work out, then they shouldn’t be walking down the aisle in the first place!

    I guess in some instances, one can have too many options. However, in most cases it is a good thing. Having the freedom to change your mind on ANY decision though, just doesn’t work, not even if it might possibly better your lot in life.

    Sometimes in life we just have to suck it up and stick with the decisions that we make. It may make things harder for awhile or forever, but God will see your determination to make things work. Perfection is a lost cause and can lead to a lot of hurt, anger, and disappointment. – A Safe & Sexy Store for Christian Married Couples

  15. Pingback: Why More Americans are Happy, Yet Unsatisfied | Marriage Gems

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