Choices, Choices, Choices

Choices, choices, choices.  Everyday we are faced with innumerable decisions and options.  And we assume–even without much thought, that it is a good thing to have so many choices.  Yet, in this Counseling Newsletter (prompted by my reading of the book, Paradox of Choice written by Barry Schwartz, Ph.D.), I’ll challenge that assumption.  I believe that choice can be a good thing—I have also become convinced that although some choice may be good, it does not follow that more choice is better.

In recent decades there has been a robust increase in material affluence in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world), but this has not led to an increase in subjective well-being.  Even though many people have more money and more stuff, the money and the stuff has not led them to feel much better about their lives.  Could it be true that excessive freedom of choice is not all that it’s cracked up to be? Ironically, unrestrained freedom of choice (and the assumption that more choice is always better than less) has not liberated us but has ironically become a burden.
In our culture, we have somehow been persuaded that choice equals freedom.  But, solid empirical evidence and reliable research findings argue that not all choice actually enhances freedom.  In an odd twist, to our own peril, we often equate freedom with choice.  We assume that we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of options available to us.  As modern Americans, we have more choice than any group of people has ever had before.  Our unspoken assumptions tell us that this wide ability to choose will make us more autonomous and free.  Yet, we are surprised as we stop and look around, finding that we don’t seem to be benefiting (psychologically, morally, spiritually, relationally) from all of this choice.

We make the most of our freedom as we learn to make good (wise) choices about the things that matter, while simultaneously unburdening ourselves from too much concern about the things that don’t. For example, before the advent of cable television, most American viewers had three networks from which to choose.  Deciding (for an individual or a family) what to watch on television (Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Walt Disney, or the Ed Sullivan Show) was a clear process because there were limited options. Contrast this, given the introduction of cable television, with the innumerable choices with which we are faced today.  In many areas of life we are asked to make choices on a moment by moment basis.  With technology and our twenty-four hour lifestyle we must choose:
-Academic and career paths.

-Once a career path is determined–where will I work (at the office, on the road, from home)?
-What relationships will I pursue?

-Where will live?  -With whom will I live?

-What will I eat?  -Where will I eat?

-Where will I shop? Which of the thousands of products will I buy?
The example of the television experience is the very essence of choice without boundaries.  What was once a relatively simple and manageable decision (which of the three networks will I watch this evening?) has become a task of nearly horizonless choice.  Every second of every day, we are choosing.  Making choices has become a full-time job.

To a large degree we make sense out of our lives by comparing one situation to another.  It feels cold today because yesterday was so warm.   This meal is tastes spicy because the other meal was so bland.  In a

similar manner we make sense out of our station in life by comparing our lives to the lives of others.  If I live in a nice house—it’s nice compared to what?  If I have “good kids”—they are good compared to whom?  We have a nearly insatiable desire to look around at what others are doing, achieving, and acquiring, and then use that as a standard of comparison.  In his book, Schwartz writes that this is like being in a crowded football stadium during the last two minutes of a game.  A crucial play is about to begin, so people begin to rise to their feet.  Within moments everyone is standing but no one’s position (or view of the field) has really improved.  This is what it is like to keep up with the Jones, Smiths or Johnsons.  A rising tide raises all boats, so when we compare ourselves to one another, it is difficult to be content and satisfied.

When you talk to people, they say they want more control over the details of their lives.  In fact, much of the advertising industry is directed toward selling us on the illusion of control over our lives.  While we desire (or think we desire) more control over our lives, most of us also want to simplify our lives.  And there you have it, the paradox of life in the United States in the 21st century.  We want control while we also want simplicity.  But, the more we are able to exercise control (through an increasing variety of choices) the more complicated our lives become.
We say we want increased choice and more control over our choices.  Yet, although this is what we say we want—consider the example of the hamburger restaurant chain, In N Out.  In N Out offers a very simple menu—hamburgers, French fries, and beverages.  That’s it.  No tacos, fish sandwiches, salads, or cookies.  In N Out limits our choices and seemingly reduces our level of control, but most people love eating there. Although people enjoy their delicious hamburgers, I think they quietly appreciate the simplicity offered by the limited choice.

Does the quest for perfection—for the perfect choice—actually lead to better decisions and more happiness?  The short answer is NO.  When approaching decisions, Schwartz suggests that there are basically two kinds of people, Maximizers and what Schwartz calls Satisficers.  Maximizers work hard to maximize choice. They tend to be on the lookout for a better job, they channel surf, they try on a lot of clothes to find the perfect fit, and they never settle for second best. In contrast, satisficers are focused on making a good choice or at least a good enough choice.
Although, by objective standards, maximizers might make the best decisions—from a subjective perspective, maximizers don’t feel so good about their decisions.  For the maximizer the goal is to get the very best objective result from a decision.  Yet, this “best result” may not be worth much if we feel disappointed anyway.
This is not to say that satisficers don’t have standards—some may have very high standards.  But (and this is the key), they allow themselves to be satisfied once those standards are met.  In contrast, the maximizers’ job is never completed.  Decisions and projects can always be improved—there is rarely a season of rest.  Choosing wisely (and realistically) begins with developing a clear understanding of your goals and priorities.  The satisficer decides what is required to meet their standard.  They examine an object or a project and if it is good enough to meet their standard, they look no further.

Therefore, the countless and endless array of other available choices become irrelevant.  But, such is not the case for the maximizer.  People high on the maximizer scale do not stop with “good enough.” They are looking for the absolute best choice or option.  As a decision strategy, maximizing is a daunting task.  Ironically, maximizers (who are focused on making the very best choices) often experience less satisfaction with life than the satisficers.  Coupled with this, almost everyone who scores high on the maximization scale also scores high on regret (they regret the decisions they’ve made because they inevitably discover ways in which the decision they made was not the best).

Studies have been conducted in which the subjective well-being of people living in different cultures

has been compared. The findings suggest that although there are substantial differences between cultures in their consumption opportunities, these differences have very small effects on life satisfaction.  Closer to home, it seems that as American society has grown wealthier and as Americans have become freer to pursue and do what they want, Americans have become increasingly unhappy.  Amazingly, we get what we want, only to discover that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expected.  We focus on choice, on making and getting the best things, and when we get there, we’re disappointed and even regretful.  There comes a point when we are overwhelmed by the number of choices, by the labor-intensive process of choosing, and by the pursuit of the very best choice.  Could it be that choosing, and subsequently consuming, is not all that it is cracked up to be?

It makes good sense (and this is supported by empirical research) that people who are married, people who have close friendships, and those who are close to their families are happier than those who are not.  In a similar manner, people who are connected to a religious/spiritual community are happier than those who are not.
But, it is also true that although these close relationships deepen our lives, these relationships also reduce the freedom to choose.  Social ties, although very healthy, actually reduce our freedom, choice, and autonomy.  As counterintuitive as it may appear—what seems to contribute most to happiness binds (focuses) us rather than liberates us.
If we singularly pursue increased affluence and freedom we can expect a concomitant decrease in the quality and quantity of social relationships.  So although we may pursue wealth, independence, and acquisition of material goods when we actually get them, we may not like the result. When we limit the number of choices we consider and the number of choices we make we will have more time available for what’s important.  In contrast, if we are always in search of the very best—we will be plagued by one decision after another, and we will be doubting and regretting many of our choices. Schwartz makes an incisive statement on this topic, “You may not always be conscious (aware) of this, but your effort to get the best car (house…) will interfere with your desire to be a good friend.”

Who do you think is happier, an athlete who wins a silver medal in the Olympics or an athlete who wins a bronze medal?  It seems obvious that second place is better than third place, so we all assume that the silver medalist should be happier than the bronze medalist.  But, this turns out not to be so.  Bronze medalists are happier.  As the bronze medalist is standing on the platform, she is thankful as she reflects upon how close she came to getting edged out and not winning a medal, while the silver medalist is disappointed as she is reminded of how close she came to winning the coveted gold medal.
The power of human imagination is amazing, a great gift.  Yet our imagination also gives us the ability (or is it a curse?) to conjure up scenarios that provide a never-ending supply of raw material for experiencing regret and comparison.  Our imagination allows us to dream and create.  Yet, this same imagination allows us to construct unreasonable expectations.  Our imagination provides an environment for contrast effects. And because of contrast effects, any actual vacation (no matter how idyllic and restful) suffers by contrast to the imagined, perfect, alternative vacation.  The perfectly fine vacation is now seen as wanting when compared to the imagined counterfactual, nonrealistic vacation.  And with this unreasonable comparison comes regret.
The same principle applies to social comparisons.  Social comparisons (comparing my station in  life to the life of a friend or associate) does nothing to improve one’s satisfaction with the choices one makes.  As we refuse to compare ourselves to others, we become more satisfied.  The principle here is to be thankful and exercise an attitude of gratitude, not basing my contentment on what others have but on what has been stewarded to me.


Schwartz describes three gaps that we encounter as related to choice:

  1. The gap between what one has and what one wants.
  2. The gap between what one has and what one thinks others like him have.
  3. The gap between what one has now and the best that one had in the past.

Nearly without exception, these gaps lead to discontentment and unhappiness. All of these gaps are predicated upon comparison, almost by definition: to be a maximizer is to have high standards and high expectations. We can probably do more to impact the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else. The blessing of modest expectations is that they leave room for many experiences to come as a pleasant surprise. The challenge is to find a way to keep expectations modest (realistic)—even as actual experiences get better.

One way to do this is to purposefully keep wonderful experiences rare, keep special things special. Another idea is to focus not on the event, or the food, or the situation, but the people you are with. If my wife and I are out on a date—our focus ought not to be primarily on the food being served at the restaurant, but on the quality of our time together. When at the ballpark with my kids, he focus is not on whether or not we are in the best seats in the house, but the emphasis is on the game on the field and sharing it together.

Happy people have the uncanny ability to distract themselves and move on from events/things that are not just as they like. Yet unhappy people get stuck ruminating over their dissatisfaction and they make themselves more and more miserable.


If we are to have any chance in managing the problem of excessive choice, we’ve got to decide which choices in our lives really matter and then focus our time and energy there. This also means letting other decisions pass us by. By purposefully restricting our options we will be able to choose less and feel better.

Yet, there is world full of marketers trying to convince us that “good enough” isn’t good enough. They are trying to persuade us that when “new and improved” is available, we’d be smart to make that choice. The trick and the challenge is to learn to embrace and appreciate satisficing. The goal is to cultivate a heart of gratitude and thankfulness in more and more aspects of our lives. Becoming a conscious, deliberate, and intentional satisficer make comparisons with how other people are doing less important. This also makes regrets less likely. In the complex and choice saturated world in which we live, being a satisficer makes peace of mind possible.


This matter of choice makes it clear that we cannot create or generate our own lasting peace and happiness. A joyful life is not the mere result of making the best choices over and over again. Of course, our choosing (especially wise choices) can contribute to a life of peace and joy. But we would be wiser and eternally blessed if we understood and lived by the truth that true joy and contentment comes through a deepening and renewing relationship with God. Although Schwartz did not include this point in his treatment of the topic of choices, choosing to trust God with all of our choices would be the very best choice.

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