Why are you so unhappy? The Paradox of Choice

PoC3A few months prior, when I was trying to make what I thought at the time was a tough decision, a good friend of mine introduced me to the theory of the Paradox of Choice (you may have heard of this before; if you haven’t, please do have a listen- it is pretty spot on). As an economist I am very familiar with this idea. The theory is akin to that of opportunity cost; when you choose one thing, you are giving up another. Basically, you can’t have it all.

The feelings that result from giving up option A over option B can be rather dissatisfying. I can go to the movies with Rachel, but that means I choose to not have that coffee with Jennie. The result is sadness, frustration, and a general ‘grass is always greener’ sentiment, especially if my perception of my outing was unfavourable (AKA the movie sucked or Rachel would not share the popcorn – she never does). When a decision is more difficult the opportunity cost is higher, and the feelings of frustration and loss can be more dramatic.

PoC6We are faced with a million decisions a day, and it can be overwhelming. Some scholars are blaming this phenomenon for the general discontent and sort of neurotic behaviour of the individuals of our generation; bottom line, we have too many choices. We make so many decisions every single day, and irrelevant of our life situation, most decisions seem life altering. Even if they are, are they really that important? Do we really have THAT much choice, or do things just sort of work out?

PoC4I feel that many of my friends spend their days wondering if they made the right decisions, if they are currently making the right decisions. I ran into a friend at yoga who had decided to pick up and move to Australia. I asked her if she was excited and she said she wasn’t sleeping, thinking about whether or not it was the right thing to do; she was worried it was not going to work out. I have heard many of my friends complaining, complaints that would make anyone cringe if they heard them in the company of disadvantaged individuals. They are deciding if they should work or get a PhD, if they should live on this continent or that, or if they should take this great job or that great job.

PoC5Earlier this year I was dating a guy who was ready to jump feet first into a serious relationship. I was apprehensive and this was causing major strife between us. I ended the relationship, then got back with him, then ended it, then got back with him. I was a mess. I could not make a decision, did I want to try to make a time consuming long distance relationship work with a great, albeit intense guy? Or did I want to have my freedom and focus on my PhD? At the end of the day, the entire thing came to a screeching halt in what, in retrospect, is probably the most comical ending of all time: enraged by my refusal to strip for him on Skype, he called me selfish and ended whatever the heck was going on between us. Clearly this was not ever going to be the relationship for me, and my gut told me to end it, but then I was so scared that I had made the wrong decision, that I went back. I did this twice, even though, ultimately, the outcome would have been the exact same.

At the end of the day, everything we choose leaves us feeling like we are giving up so much, missing out on everything we could have had, leaving us resentful and unsatisfied.

We need to knock this off, and this is how I suggest we do that – Remember the following:

1)      Listen to your instinct. I know, I know, we are supposed to be highly evolved creatures who think everything through and make rational decisions. Listening to our rational mind is what separates us from the animals, right? Sure, but that does not mean your gut is lying to you. My rational mind almost got me stuck in a relationship that was so very wrong for me!

2)      Sometimes decisions don’t matter, at all. You can’t know what would have happened if you had taken choice A instead of choice B. If you take that job in city X versus city Y, you will never ever know who you would have met in city Y, and you will never ever be able to compare. Maybe you would have gotten hit by a bus upon stepping out of the airport.

3)      Take your decision and make it work. In American English we say “make a decision” in most of the rest of the world they say  “take a decision.” I prefer the latter. Taking a decision means taking responsibility and ownership of your decisions. You could be happy in so many different cities, with so many different people, doing so many different things. If you only like one person and only like to eat one thing and only like to do one thing, then maybe I am wrong, but I doubt it. So take your decision, own it, be it, do it. Be happy you are where you are, be grateful you have had the experiences you have had because they make you the person you are, and quit your bitching, you are fine.

One thought on “Why are you so unhappy? The Paradox of Choice

  1. Katie says:

    Thanks for writing this Michaelle. It is a timely and relevant post for me:) I especially dig the illustrative photos:)

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