Through choice comes empowerment; it’s a topic I’ve often touched upon. The recognition that multiple options always exist whatever the scenario can miraculously lift from your shoulders the weight of torment, resentment, frustration and inertia that otherwise arise as a matter of course when you feel press-ganged into doing something.
The truth is that there really is no surer route to a life of self-imprisonment, demotivation and discontentment than to constantly tell yourself, ‘I have to…I have no choice’.
Having to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, having to go to work, having to stop at the red traffic light when you’re ten minutes late, having to pay the bills, having to have a tooth extracted, having to accept the invite to Mr and Mrs Charisma’s mind numbing holiday snap presentation evening; the aggregate of all those ‘have to’s’ will, if you live with that mindset indefinitely, slowly but surely sap the very essence out of life.
But replace that ‘have to’ mentality with a mindset based around choice and that heavy burden dissipates; potentially making even the most onerous task palatable.
As the motivational psychologist Neil Fiore puts it in ‘The Now Habit’:
‘You don’t have to want to do the task, nor do you have to love it. But if you prefer it to the consequences of not doing it, you can commit to it wholeheartedly.’
It’s a core principle I fully embrace myself…it’s one of the reasons that right now I’m writing this instead of watching Braveheart for the millionth time on late night TV. I will admit that I’d prefer the escapism of watching a blue faced Mel Gibson hacking his way indiscriminately through a succession of 14th Century English armies, but I don’t relish the consequence: a missed opportunity to write an article and the background stress that’ll stir in me.
Put simply, I prefer the consequences of writing, as opposed to not writing tonight; and the awareness of that basic choice lets me commit to what may not be the most pleasurable course of action, but is nevertheless the more important to me deep down.
The Choice Paradox
When taken to excess or misapplied there’s a problem with this whole philosophy of choice though; a paradoxical problem that can leave the human spirit as dissatisfied and tormented as when confronted with no choice at all. Because as any Buddhist will tell you, too much choice can equally lead to mental conflict; not only in the form of anxiety arising from indecision, but from the numerous trivialities that the presence of excessive choice manifests; preoccupying our minds and consuming our lives.
Take the TV analogy again; the meagre but uncomplicated choice of just three channels on British television when I was a kid saved a great deal of the restless channel flicking we’re all prone to today, a restlessness that culminates in that insidious constant unease that manifests itself as, ‘I wonder if there’s anything better on?’, as well as that sense of dissatisfaction when you realise that you weren’t able to settle down sufficiently to just relax and get engrossed in just one thing.
Now take that one trivial example and multiply it’s effects through all the areas of our modern day lives where choice abounds; I’m sure you’ll quickly appreciate the negative psychological effect, as well as the misplaced priorities and wasted time, that all that abundant choice promotes.
Through unrestrained choice, an endemic sense of dissatisfaction becomes the norm; a constant, nagging at the back of our minds fuelled by an incessant search for something better: – something more entertaining, more rewarding, more satisfying; bigger, more exclusive, more impressive. We obsess about the trivial; we neglect the important. Our lives become unnecessarily convoluted; and the arising confusion, distraction and craving for something more or else, fuel our discontentment with life.
It’s not surprising then that ‘desire’, of which ‘choice’ is a key component, is often considered in Eastern philosophy to be the root of all suffering.
Of course, in the West we generally don’t see choice maximisation in the same sinister, suffering laden light. Instead we associate choice with freedom, not entrapment; we live by a maxim of ‘the more options I have, the better off and happier I’ll be.’
Western science however, is progressively more inclined to agree with the East.
Maximizers and Satisficers
Over the last decade or so, psychologists have investigated the mind-sets that drive the decisions people make. Out of this research, two distinct personality types have been identified that radically differ in their both their approach to decision making and their effects on emotional wellbeing.
Maximizers on the one hand, are individuals who consider all the options available to them and then try to find the ‘perfect fit’. Satisficers on the other hand, are happy to accept the first option that broadly fits in with their criteria. They won’t, in other words, ruminate endlessly over what they should do, how they should do it, where they should go, who they should spent their time with, what they should buy. They look for a good fit, not a perfect one, and leave it at that.
Who are the happiest?
I’m sure you can guess. Just as Buddhist philosophy has been drumming home in the East for the best part of 2500 years, Western psychologists have found that hands down, satisficers derive the greatest sense of contentment out of life.
The more people move towards the ‘maximizer’ end of the spectrum – that is, the more they insist on unearthing and evaluating every last option available to them – the unhappier they become.
Maximizers, researchers have found, get progressively more depressed, pessimistic, regretful, lacking in self-esteem and life-satisfaction, the more they’re inclined to obsess about their options. They’re also prone to making negative comparisons between themselves and others; fixating on what others have and they lack.
To give you an example, one study into the maximizer / satisficer mindset (with the pretty self-explanatory title, ‘Doing Better but Feeling Worse: Looking for the Best Job Undermines Satisfaction’) followed the fortunes of 500 graduate students as they attempted to land their first post-university job.
Those previously exposed as maximizers through psychological evaluation by answering questions such as ‘I never settle for second best’ and ‘I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend’, did in fact out-perform their satisficer counterparts in real terms by securing jobs that paid about 20 percent more. Subjectively however, they fared far worse: they were less satisfied with their jobs and as previous research had predicted, they suffered from higher levels of depression, anxiety and pessimism.
The message is clear:
The more you try to maximise your choices, the more uncertain you become about the choices you make; and the greener the grass will always look on the other side of the fence. As my Mum used to say to me as a self-absorbed, materialistic sulking teenager, ‘You’re never happy. Nothing’s ever good enough is it?’
Instinctively, we all know it’s the case, just as my Mum pointed out to me. The more options you have open to you in any specific scenario, the more you’ll be wracked by indecision, the less you’ll be satisfied with your ultimate choice and the more prone you’ll be to negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, regret and low self-esteem.
Satisfy, Don’t Maximize
So in those areas of your life where choice abounds, actively try to limit your options. Search for acceptability instead of perfection – uncomplicate the needlessly complicated.
The shift from “It has to be perfect” to “That will suit my needs just fine” declutters both your mind and your life; and leave you feeling a great deal happier in the process. It’s a point on which Eastern philosophy and Western psychology both agree.