Every once in a while, a TED talk would strike me with insights to the most pervasive phenomena in our society, yet are invisible to the immediate eye. While some would argue that watching something you’ve watched before is a wasteful activity, I beg to differ for this one. In fact, I think Barry Schwartz’s 2005 TED talk is even more relevant today than it was eight years ago.
” … but I am not you.”
Atypical of modern-day consumers, I replace my phones at minimum every three years, whereas it’s already the norm for those around me to have more than one phone to carry around. While I have all the more reason to stash away my BlackBerry when both Android and iOS incorporated the BBM app, it still seems like a waste to spend about 9 million rupiahs if I leave my BlackBerry away for something that does about a million things more and better than it. “You don’t have to leave it alone; you can still use it with your new phone,” argued most. I mean, no matter how much I hate it when my BB jams and lags and drains for no reason, it’s still a great-enough device to use for basic mobile communication purposes, namely calling and texting, which only existed in the last couple of centuries.
Call me an old soul, but since I’m already both a laptop and a tablet user, I don’t consider the need to have another phablet in my purse alongside something that I need just to call or text people wherever I go. While the Note 3 has been tempting me for quite some time now, they’re already spreading rumors about the Note 4. While I’m still very much happy with my 3rd-generation iPad HD, Cook’s recently announced the iPad Air. I can literally wait forever for the perfect phone or the perfect tablet as long as the market demands more choices out of these companies so that the individual consumer can get their hands just a little bit closer on their perfect “one”. For a high-flying business executive, a large-screen device that supports multiple easy-to-use productivity apps is “the one” to simplify his busy lifestyle. For the average Millennial, something that has a huge memory to store everything from her music collection to the trendiest social gaming apps is ideal, since her FOMO will be updating her Instagram or checking her Facebook notifications constantly when not taking calls or texting her crush.
Identity as a choice
The Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz, known for linking economics and psychology in his work, proposed that there are bigger risks than there are advantages in the Western dogma that states, “If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom.” Sounds a lot like sound reasoning, because “freedom is in of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human, and if we have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to maximize our individual freedom – no one has to decide on our behalf.” So the logic goes, “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have. The more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”
No doubt personal autonomy feels liberating for all of us. Think of those tempting moments when you know you’re in control and made the right choice: Don’t you fare much better than if you did sell out to your temptations?
Back in the old days, you only have to choose between giving in to a salad dressing and no salad dressing at all. Problems only arise when you have more types of salad dressings to choose from.
What most salesman wouldn’t remind you (’cause you’re smart enough to know that you always have a choice) is that making a decision is hard, costly, and burdensome. The questions that follow your choice will keep consuming the crap out of you for the rest of your life, even if it’s something as mundane as picking a salad dressing for yourself.
Hidden effects of “keeping my options open”
The way Schwartz sees it, is that more choices leads to less satisfaction, even though the gluten-free, fat-free, 100% organic salad dressing out of the 175 types on the rack is what we think is best for us and we choose it at our own will. Then when it doesn’t taste the way you imagined it to be, it’s so easy to picture how much closer other brands would’ve gotten with their gluten-free, fat-free, 100% salad dressings to your personal taste.
Here’s a summary of Schwartz’s theory on more is less:
Why Choices Make People Miserable:
1. Regret and anticipated regret
“With so many choices, people find it difficult to choose at all,” affirmed Schwartz. Not only does having too many options paralyzing to our decision-making process, but it’s easier than ever to spend more time on regretting our own decisions than to actually enjoy the ones we’ve chosen, even if we’re making the right ones. Often we cannot fathom why, after all the time and care we’ve given to choose “the one” product or service among the sea of competitors, we’re still overshadowed by the attractive features of alternative choices, sometimes even to the point where we regret just seconds after making the purchase.
Say you’re passing by a local grocery store and you’ve grabbed a conventional dozen of white eggs and a jug of reduced-fat milk. On your way home, you saw that Whole Foods is having a major sale on a dozen brown omega 3-enriched eggs and jugs of low-fat kefir two for three – all for half the total cost of what you’ve just transacted from the previous grocery store.
How would you feel?
Exactly. You wish for what could’ve been.
2. Opportunity costs
Remember the days when there used to be only one type of farm-raised chicken egg dozens and cow’s milk? None of us imagined more than having a good dairy for breakfast.
Truth is, there is much dependence on the other things we compare them to when we’re determining how much we value things. Even if we’re making the right choices, such as scrambling eggs for breakfast as opposed to boiling a bag of instant noodles, we’re still nagged by the idea that we’re missing the opportunity to have a more enriching breakfast experience if only we’ve got the discounted, omega 3-enriched eggs from Whole Foods. Or the vegetarian ones. Or the cage-free and/or free-range.
When there are so many alternatives to consider, it’s easier to spotlight the attractiveness of the things you’ve rejected than the ones that you’ve chosen. Let’s say this guy, Bill, is happily single, and recently rejected hot girl Sarah for good reason: He simply cannot see himself in a long-term relationship with her. But then his friends are out of town, and at the moment he’s completely bored. “I could be having sex with Sarah right now,” muttered Bill to himself.
Imagine if he’s never in her league. He’d have no chance with Sarah, and the thought of not being with her would’ve never made him miserable.
3. Escalation of expectations
Schwartz went on to share his jeans-buying experience, where he’s prompted with a million choices of jeans he’d like to have, e.g. slim-fit, easy-fit, relaxed-fit, button-fly, zipper-fly, bootcut, distressed, etc., and ended up walking out of the store with the best pair of jeans he’s ever had. Ironically, he felt worse. “With all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans went up,” he explains. It is distressing that even after you’ve spent two hours in the changing room trying on all these options available for you, what you got still isn’t the perfect one you’ve imagined in your head, whereas back in the days when you only have one kind of jeans, you still have room in your head for jeans-buying experiences that can actually be a pleasant surprise – no preconceived expectations whatsoever. “Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be, and what’s that going to produce is less satisfaction with results even when they’re good results.”
Think about it: If farming technology didn’t get as advanced as it’s gotten today and that there’s no other way of getting eggs than the traditional way, you wouldn’t have any particular expectations out of your scrambled egg breakfast experience … except that you didn’t wait just a little bit longer to get the omega 3-enriched ones, which are worth so more for your health, your taste, and your budget.
Lastly, Schwartz pointed out that he believes a significant reason behind the explosion of clinical depression and suicide rates in recent years was a result of this phenomenon of having too many choices in life.
While some choices is better than none, many choices is taking its toll on your happiness. With so much to choose from and more than enough riches to spend on the best of the best, we still question ourselves, why am I still unhappy? Why was I dissatisfied with my choice? Why am I disappointed with what I’ve done, at my will, even when I know I’ve fared well? Well, who’s responsible for the burden of decision-making now?
It is none other than you. You chose the dozen of eggs. You chose not to date Sarah. You could’ve done better with a million different kinds of eggs, you could’ve done better with a billion hot girls other than Sarah in the world. You could’ve done a whole lot better with all the choices in the world at your shoulders.
There is no room for failure, but you’re still unhappy. There is no one else to blame but yourself.
We may eat better eggs, drive better cars and lead fancier lives, yet ultimately, we’re blind in thinking that we’re making poor choices when we’re disappointed by them. Because our standards are so high, we affluent citizens of industrialized societies are used to a world where we expect to see what’s in our heads to actualize in our very own eyes, and if they don’t, we jump to conclusions that we could’ve done better.
“The secret to happiness,” Schwartz continued, “is low expectations.”
Freedom in limitations
Let me share a little something from personal experience.
10 recently brought me out to dinner to which I expect nothing out of. Earlier during the day I thought it’d be good to spend a casual date night. As long as we’re together, we’ll be having a good time.
It turned out to be greater than I would expect. It’s great pasta, it’s more than just a good time, and it certainly was a pleasant surprise.
Over the course of our relationship, I’ve had numerous breakdowns whenever it occurred to me that it’s blatantly clear so many other women would’ve made his romantic life a lot easier if they were the ones with him instead of me. I am unapologetically an idealist. While I didn’t keep an obsessive checklist of traits and qualities I want in a future husband when I was single, I solely based my self-improvement on the simple idea that I want to learn to embody the traits and qualities I usually admire in guys. I believe it would lead me to “the one”. Better and better choices started to appear, but I didn’t settle. I felt I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t living up to my ever-increasing standards.
Turns out I wasn’t the only idealist. “I’m glad I never decide to lower my standards,” 10 keeps saying. He’d tells stories from his singlehood and the many times he’s been let down, but never once he gave in to something that was up for grabs and to which he would say, “I could’ve done better.” Despite so, when it comes to me, I still believe he settled.
While no one can escape the difficulties of being in a relationship, there is more value in moving forward being so than spending the rest of our lives opening ourselves up to great options and hope to find the perfect one. There were a number of dates I had that society’s highest expectations would deem better than the pleasant surprise I had recently with 10, but I’d imagine it to be more difficult to choose which picture you’d want for the rest of your life when you have so many great dates to choose from. Eventually you’ll expect more out of a date and fall for the ideal instead of a real human being.
Most of us would initially read the following cartoon as one that portrays a limited view of reality. I mean, how can you accomplish anything great as long as you’re imprisoned within the closed walls of a bowl PLUS the illusion it reflects about you?
Then again, there’s no reason to make art if the cartoonist is not trying to tell us something important, right?
Here’s what Schwartz has to say about the little fish, and perhaps, about happiness as a choice:
The truth of the matter is, that if you shatter the fish bowl, so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom – you have paralysis. If you shatter this fish bowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction.
Everybody needs a fish bowl. This one is almost certainly too limited, perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fish bowl is a recipe for misery and uh, I suspect, disaster.
Take a brief moment to reflect: Looking back, are your choices liberating you, or did you permit them to imprison your soul?