Each day is filled with decisions, from the mundane to the earth-shattering.
Some choices are difficult, and their consequences will last far into the future. What career path do I want to pursue? Where will my wife and I live? If we have children, how many?
Many are simpler: decaf or regular? What’ll it be for dinner tonight? What to watch: Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Diff’rent Strokes?
Unfortunately, even these apparently simple decisions can be agonized over until the cows come home.
In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz concluded that the avalanche of choices available to North Americans today has had a negative impact, despite the common assumption that more choice is better.
“Life is a matter of choice,” Schwartz said in a 2005 TED Talk that summarized his findings, recalling how his grocery store offered 40 brands of toothpaste and 285 varieties of cookies.
Decisions that should be made by experts, including what health treatment to seek or which prescription drugs to use, are increasingly placed in our hands.
Even our individual identities are a matter of choice in a way that they’ve never been before. “We get to reinvent ourselves as often as we like,” Schwartz explained.
He argued that this has two major negative effects. First, it results in paralysis: we have so much to choose from, we find it difficult to make any choice at all.
Second, it affects our level of satisfaction. We’re less satisfied because we keep imagining other choices we could have made; our expectations are higher, so we’re less likely to be satisfied; and more often than not, we blame ourselves for our disappointment, because we made the choice.
Some may find Schwartz’s arguments disconcerting. I actually felt better about myself, as I realized, “I’m not the only one.”
I always thought it was a family trait. Although my mother acknowledged my father as the head of our household, she occasionally stepped in to make executive decisions. Otherwise, we’d probably still be waiting for him to decide whether I could move into the spare bedroom in the basement.
Right now, my wife and I are trying to decide whose car to sell, since we don’t need both of them. We’ve been at a standstill for months. (Anyone want to buy a 2000 Ford Focus or a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan? That would help immensely.)
Often, it’s the inane decisions that give us trouble. We have Netflix, and while people complain about the lousy selection, we find it overwhelming to choose from the wealth of movies and shows available. Sometimes we give up and settle on reruns of The Magic School Bus.
Some choices can have long-lasting repercussions for others, including baby names.
One friend mentioned a good test: if you’d feel comfortable having open heart surgery done by someone with that name, it’s a keeper.
(We have a girl’s name picked out for when the time comes, but no boy’s name yet, so we’re open to suggestions, as long as they don’t come from the Frank Zappa school of offspring nomenclature.)
Of course, many choices are not entirely, if at all, in our hands. I have learned the wisdom of seeking guidance when it comes to making decisions.
Last spring, I briefly considered leaving Moose Jaw to continue my career elsewhere.
After a great deal of prayer, reflection and meditation, I decided to stay here, and a few weeks later, I had my first date with the woman who is now my wife.
A wise choice, as it turned out.
Follow Joel on Twitter @JVDV88.