The Paradox of Choice: What Is It & How Does It Affect Us?

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”  ― Barry Schwartz

During a recent catch up session with one of my dearest friends, she shared with me that for quite some time now, she hasn’t been all too happy with her job and felt that it was time for her to start looking and to pursue other opportunities. In theory, since my friend is multi talented and have a diverse set of interests, it should be fairly easy for her to figure her next professional step and confidently move forward. Yet in contrast, she admitted to feeling “stuck”. The countless options and possibilities as to what she could do with her professional life had instead left her paralyzed in a prolonged state of inaction.

As I was listening to my friend’s story, i couldn’t help but recalled a time where I had found myself in a similar career predicament earlier in my 20’s. For those of us who grew up in western industrialized societies where the tenet of freedom of choice is so proudly upheld, we were told countless times over that “You can be whatever you want to be“,  “The world is our oyster” and that “More is better” – but here lies the paradox of choice: having been presented with a multitude of options on a proverbial silver platter, figuring just what to focus our time, attention and resources on can often result in a dilemma that plagues us with a debilitating anxiety.

Upon further reflections, I realized that the paradox of choice does not strictly apply on career related matters but rather in all matters of life – even those that seemingly trivial. Case and pointL I’m sure you can look back on times where you spent hours on end just trying to decide on what restaurant to go to for dinner and ended up having dinner at home because making a decision based on a long list of options was just too taxing.

In  situations where we are presented with so many options in front of us, it is all too common where we ended up finding ourselves unable to make a choice, fearing that we will make the wrong one . This “paralysis of analysis” is especially heightened when it comes to life’s biggest personal decisions such as deciding on our career path, selecting our life partner and so forth.

On his insightful and thought provoking TED Talk “Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less“, a renowned Psychologist, Barry Schwartz, made a poignant case based on his research findings that having the freedom of choice often result in higher level of dissatisfaction rather than a greater sense of freedom and happiness one would generally expect from having more options.

Why is that you asked? Schwartz explained that when we are presented with a wealth of options, we have a tendency of developing an escalated expectation of perfection. In other words, we expect the choice we make to be flawless but since we all know that perfection doesn’t exist, with whatever choice we do decide to make, we are inevitably faced with regret and disappointment because they simply can not meet our incredibly high expectations.

Fortunately for us, Schwartz elaborated in his book of the same title, that we are not automatically doomed to paralysis and dissatisfaction whenever we find ourselves with a plethora of choices. When faced with a variety of alternatives, one should base their important life decisions upon “focusing on what makes you happy, and do what gives meaning to your life”. He further suggests that we can learn to overcome the fear of making decisions and prevent ourselves from experiencing disappointments by not placing such high expectations on the outcome of our decision once it has been made. He even comes as far as cheekily suggesting that “Happiness comes from having low expectations“.

Most importantly, in order to set ourselves free from regret or “buyers remorse“, we must learn to  make peace with the consequences that comes with the choices we have made instead of dwelling on whether or not the alternatives would have made better choices. After all, it is life’s greatest paradox “We are always free to choose, but we are not free from the consequences of our choices“.

Barry Schwartz – TED Talk: “Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less”

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