The Anxiety of Too Much Choice

March 14, 2014
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Not too long ago, we hadn’t much choice as to the way we lived. Money wasn’t so easy to come by and society had some rigid views about how we should live. Men entered the workforce to provide for their families, women stayed at home to care for the home and children. And there wasn’t as much stuff. That is to say, there wasn’t such a variety of cars, electronics, houses, clothing, music, and technology as there is now. There weren’t as many degrees to study, places you could afford to go on holiday, or jobs available to you. This is not a nostalgic drone about ‘the good old days’, for we know this limit living was in no way the formula for happiness, especially for everyone who wasn’t a white male. While there is something to be celebrated in living simply, I think it’s the kind of simplicity of those early years that best explains one of the greatest social hangovers in today’s society.

Too Much Choice

We all agree that free will and the freedom to chose are paramount to a well-functioning and happy society. Paper or plastic, country or city, car or motorbike, boys or girls… or both. The ability to make choices about what we experience and how, empowers us and gives us the feeling that we are the master of our own ship. In the last twenty years, the goods market, or simply, ‘stuff you can buy’ has grown exponentially. Instead of one or two types of mobile phone, television or computer, there are literally thousands, and each one profits its own benefits over the others. On the social side, there have never been more options for a young person graduating high school; do I go directly to university, and if I do, what should I study? Should I travel? Should I get experience in the workforce? Should I move out or stay at home? Should I stay with my girlfriend or be single for a while? Where once society guided us through a simple course of ‘checkpoints of success’ the playing field for that lofty aim is infinitely larger than ever, and for being so, infinitely more confusing.

Instead of feeling empowered by all this choice, we fall victim to choice anxiety. Even if we manage to select a television after hours or weeks of comparison and negotiation, we may regret that we had to miss out on a feature of another model, or feel swindled when a better offer appears the following day. Live a life of travel and adventure and you may find yourself down the line looking greedily at your friends back home, with their stable salaries and beautiful families. Put yourself in that friend’s shoes however, and you may wonder what it would have been like to break away and do things differently. Instead of ‘his grass is greener, I wish I had grass like that, woe is me,’ it’s ‘his grass is greener, I had the chance to have grass like that but I chose my grass, and while my grass is pretty green too, I can’t help but feel I’m missing out and just wish I could have all the grass.’

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