Saturday, August 2, 2014

Trapped In Endless Choices

Photo by Moko 2014
"The difficulty in life is the choice." 
- George A. Moore

I recently read an interesting interview with Renata Salecl, a Slovenian philosopher and author of the book, "The Tyranny of Choice"*.  According to Salecl, the multitude of choices that we are exposed to in the modern world is responsible for the heightened anxiety that so many of us experience (see my post on anxiety). We are convinced that we can make rational and optimal decisions in all areas of our lives. However, with each choice comes suffering caused by a sense of loss of other options. We end up living with regrets, constantly wondering that maybe if we had chosen something else we would be happier.

The Existential Vacuum

Salecl believes that the notion that we are fully the masters of our own fate spreads to all domains of our lives (I have written about the illusion of control in my February post). An example that Salecl discusses is getting into romantic relationships. She talks about an "economic" approach to relationships that today is fairly common in Western society, where relationships are treated more as an investment than a romantic endeavor. It's much harder to remain in the same relationship when we constantly live with a question lingering in our heads - "is there a better person for me?" As a result, people postpone getting into committed relationships in order to allow themselves the time to find the optimal match. We want to control everything and that sense of control gives us an illusion of omnipotence. The tricky part is that the illusion of omnipotence causes us to feel guilty, scared and frustrated, as believing that everything depends on us is a huge responsibility and a heavy burden to carry. The pressure associated to making the right choice is often so high that people freeze, unable to make any decisions. According to Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and a founder of logotherapy (therapy focused on search for meaning), we no longer have any guideposts to direct us on how to make decisions. In the past we had our animal instincts that guided our behaviors, but we have lost them a long time ago. We are also suffering another loss in our more recent development: traditions that have safeguarded our behaviors are rapidly diminishing. As a result, "No instinct tells him [the man] what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do."** Without directions on how to make our decisions, compounded with a multitude of choices, no wonder we are overwhelmed and often times become incapable of making a decision!

What If There's Something Better?

You can be sure that there is! Whether you're thinking about your partner, your house, your car or your job. On a walk with a dear friend, a successful educator, he shared with me that he wished he had become an architect. The only thing that I could respond with was that then he would be wishing he'd become an educator, or would be dreaming of another unfulfilled professional dream. With seemingly endless and attainable options, making choices today have become very difficult.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz lists the following reasons why committing to a decision seems to be such a challenging task nowadays:
1. Regrets (actual and anticipated):  With a multitude of options available, if the one you settle for is not completely satisfying, it's easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. This imagined alternative choice causes regrets in regards to the decision that you've made. Now the regret is taking away the satisfaction from your original decision, even if it was a good choice (turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy)  
2. Opportunity Costs: The level of appreciation of our choice depends on what you compare your choice to. Again, if you're comparing your choice to multiple other options, it is easy to imagine the attractive characteristics of the alternatives that you rejected. Again, it decreases your satisfaction with your choice.  
3. Escalation of expectations: With endless options available, our expectations of how good our choice should be are extremely high. As a matter of fact, our expectations due to accessibility of alternatives are so high it is very hard to be positively surprised with our choice - on the contrary, it is much easier to be disappointed! 
4. Self-blame: With multiple alternatives available you feel like it's fully your responsibility when you make the wrong choice.  
The conclusion is simple: The more options there are, the easier it is to be disappointed with your choice. It applies to professional choices, relationships, and even your dinner at a restaurant.  Schwartz associates the high level of depression today partially to the high standards that people hold due to the multitude of choices. If your expectations are elevated it's easy to be disappointed. Also the perceived responsibility for failures (in the end- I chose poorly and that's why I failed) causes heightened levels of guilt, anxiety and frustration. According to Schwartz, too many options is not good. If everything is possible, satisfaction with your choice becomes unlikely.

Neglecting to Live

"When making your choice in life, do not neglect to live." - Samuel Johnson
It seems as though, trapped in the illusion of being able to completely control our lives via good choices, we cease to live. Instead of working on one's relationship, although not perfect but with time and effort usually deepens and becomes better and more enjoyable, one is constantly seeking for a "better option". And then one realizes that time is ticking and the decision has to be made even if it's far from optimal. Similar situations can happen with career choice: instead of settling for one career path, one continuously worries that she made a bad choice, which causes anxiety that is preventing her from enjoying what she has. A perfect choice doesn't exist. Choices are always linked to risks and losses and because of that they are anxiety provoking. Sometimes that anxiety completely prevents us from taking action and causes us to idly slide though our life. 

So... what can we do in this world swamped with alternatives? One option is to avoid deciding at all, as with each choice comes a loss or multiple losses of other alternatives. In this scenario we can prepare for a purposeless, idle life characterized by the unbearable lightness of being. Another option would be to continue making choices and then to spend your whole life regretting them and wondering how things would have been if you made a different choice. Finally, you can choose and then give this choice a real try.  A real try without focusing on regrets and without constantly peeking at other options. With choices comes responsibility, which may be another reason to avoid deciding. But without taking that responsibility, without committing to something or someone, can we truly live?

To learn more about the paradox of choice, watch this amazing TED talk by Barry Schwartz (it's 20 minutes long, but it's worth it!). 

* The mentioned interview with Renata Salecl was published in Wysokie Obcasy, 2/22/14.
** The quote comes from Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning"

1 comment:

  1. Another spot on post. I believe this also points to the difficulty we have staying in the present. Instead of making the most of the moment in front of us, we are pining over past opportunities or lusting after future ones. Mindfulness can be a helpful antidote.