How Freedom Of Choice Is Leading To Stress?

“Should I kill myself, or make myself a cup of coffee?”

Famous quote from the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, driving home the point that in every area of our life and in every moment, a choice is waiting to be made.

According to a study, the number of people who can describe themselves as “very happy” has nosedived during the last 30 years or so and the most painful manifestation being the increased prevalence of clinical depression.

So what is causing this?  While there could be many reasons, one which affects all of us is the stress from making choices; everyday – every moment!

There are so many alternatives to our choices.  Fortunately for us most of our day-to-day choices are on autopilot and we don’t really need to ponder for long.  Putting on your clothes or brushing your teeth before you step out to office don’t really count.

I am talking about the innumerable choices we are faced with, which demand a lot of effort – both intellectual and emotional.  Right from choosing a health insurance to an educational program; from fitness program to a diet plan; a mobile device to a laptop, our choices have become incredibly complicated.   I hardly know a person who fully understands what his health insurance covers.  Most of us sign on the dotted line fatigued by reading the lines and between them and end up ‘choosing’ – yeah well that’s a choice as well 😊 to go with what our investment advisor told us.

We have so many alternatives that making the choice puts a huge burden of responsibility on the individual.  The free markets have added to the burden.  One’s ability to make choices is probably the single most important skill to learn today, especially so when it comes to critical ones like finances, health and medicine, education, fitness and diet, and buying a home; the stakes for the individual are very high.  A bad investment decision for example, can bring complete financial ruin to an individual’s life, forcing the person to prioritize between food and medicine.

The effect of these incredibly demanding choices we have to make ourselves, makes it harder for people to choose wisely.   In fact, the so called ‘freedom of choice’ sometimes feels like a crushing burden on us.

Even with few alternatives on hand, our decision making is prone to error.  It’s partly due to the fact that they are partially impacted by our memory and conditioning which are often biased. 

As Daniel Kahneman states, “how we remember a past experience depends almost entirely on how the experience felt to us when it was at its best or worst, and when it ended”.

With online digital shopping in vogue today, making a choice has become more and more difficult.  I am sure you would have felt that at the end of an experience of an online purchase it robs us of the much-needed satisfaction and happiness of having finally made a choice.  For example, I myself experience this every year, when I am tasked with planning a vacation for my family.  At times it has taken a month before I finally arrive at a decision.  After skimming through the web with so many alternatives and with intense brainstorming with the stakeholders i.e, family, it is so exhausting for all that you are still reeling under the thought whether you made the right decision in the end?  At times I have experienced, I am in the midst of the holiday reminded of the options I could have considered which would have possibly been better than the one I chose. That spoils the whole vacation.  Have you had similar experiences?  Not just a vacation but any other choice which you have made in the recent past?

These are nothing but what we popularly know as opportunity cost of passing up the opportunity that the other option could have possibly provided.  Whenever we think of opportunity costs, we are prone to feel less satisfied with our choice that we would if the alternatives were unknown.

Today, the Mental wellness and Emotional Wellness industry is growing at a fast pace.  Did you know what’s behind their growth?  Widespread unhappiness!

Sometimes you wonder, with so much of development taking place around the world where man has even planned to set foot on Mars, why is here so much unhappiness all around?

Simply put, we are spoilt for choice.

We are suffering because we have been presented with unlimited options on a daily basis and we are prone to make errors of judgment where our choices turn out to be disappointing.  We start blaming ourselves.

You start to sense a lack of control.  As Martin Seligman says, “failure or lack of control leads to depression”.  You end up blaming yourselves and such self-blame is easier in a world where your options are unlimited.  The modern epidemic of unhappiness is highly correlated with this abundance of alternatives of which you have to choose.

You may realize that the unlimited freedom of choice in every aspect of life might be actually making us lonely and cause us more distress than we realize.

So what can we do to alleviate the pain? Limit the choice and don’t be too informed is my advice.

What’s your advice?  How do you think people can make ‘choices’ that make them happy?

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