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Happiness and the Tyranny of Choice

We live in an unprecedented era of choice and freedom. Anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can buy a billion different things online, get news from across the globe, speak to people from any nation, all without having to leave the house. More choice means more options and greater freedom, which we tend to believe is a good thing. But what if this isn’t always the case? Is there such a thing as too much choice?

There are quite a few people who think that choice has a downside. Psychologically, an abundance of choice can be difficult, as the act of making a choice sacrifices other alternative courses of action. If there are too many options, the weight of all the other missed opportunities can dwarf the actual benefits of what you do choose. Malcom Gladwell speaks of an experiment in America that showed when people had too many purchasing options they actually bought fewer items. An abundance of choice can foster anxiety, bringing the pressure that there must be a ‘right’ answer out there, with more choices making you feel more likely to get it ‘wrong’.

A similar issue applies when it comes to finding a partner. Having a wide choice of potential dates, such as those found on Tinder or similar apps, can lead to people being less satisfied with the partners they select. I imagine this is because both partners are acutely aware of the wide range of alternative partners, and how easy it is to dive back into the dating pool at a moment’s notice. Choice becomes a distraction from the process of investing in a relationship.

Another consequence of abundant choice is decision fatigue. Barack Obama famously only wore blue or grey suits to save his decision making energy for bigger, more important choices. The theory is that like physical energy we have only a limited amount of mental energy, so more decisions leads to mental tiredness and less effective decision-making. To have so many options about the mundane things in life may lead to worse decisions when it comes to the important choices.

An abundance of choice means there are so many different ways to meet your needs. When shopping for a new TV the first one you see will probably meet 90% of your needs. But how long are you willing to invest to find the perfect solution? Once you’ve had the TV for a few months, will you still think the extra three hours you put into finding the right one is worth it, or could you just accept a good TV and have an extra afternoon to yourself?

To move away from a view where every decision is vital requires that we accept what is simply ‘good enough’. We are sold a dream of perfection, that we can find a perfect solution to every problem if we spend enough money, buy this particular product, or follow this particular routine. The average household contains tens of thousands of items, how much time would be wasted if we needed every item to be completely perfect?

So what can we do? For starters we’d all be a lot more content if we remembered that buying the wrong brand of cookies, the wrong jacket, or a badly made pair of shoes will have very little effect on our overall happiness. Perhaps we can be a little more like Obama, and accept less control over every detail of our lives, giving us more time and energy to focus on the important things.

Author's Bio


Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.

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