Choice Makes You Unhappy

by Stephen Mills on January 29, 2009

You Have to Love It!

Don’t you absolutely love those moments when the light bulb comes on and something fairly profound hits you like a ton of bricks?  That happened to me tonight.  I’ve been doing a lot the last couple of weeks but I feel like I have been spinning my wheels to a large extent.  My head is spinning with choices ; what do I read? What do I write? What do I focus on?  I’ve bookmarked a thousand pages knowing full well the fire hose will keep flowing and I’ll never catch up and go back and look at them.  Nothing significant is getting done.  I’m about to run screaming off of a cliff.

Then tonight I read this little paragraph:

Options Make Us Miserable

We’re constantly making decisions, ranging from what to eat for dinner each night to whom we should marry, not to mention all those flavors of ice cream. We base many of our decisions on whether we think a particular preference will increase our well-being. Intuitively, we seem convinced that the more choices we have, the better off we’ll ultimately be. But our world of unlimited opportunity imprisons us more than it makes us happy. In what Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice,” facing many possibilities leaves us stressed out—and less satisfied with whatever we do decide. Having too many choices keeps us wondering about all the opportunities missed. (emphasis added)

I‘ve always intuitively known this and upon reflection realize I counsel others to limit choices because it cause people to be frustrated and unhappy!  Yet I simply didn’t see it in myself.  I tell people all the time that I don’t ask opinions because it seems like people get frustrated when they think their opinion matters.  I’ve told supervisors that when you ask 8 people how they think something should be done, you will end up with at least 7 unhappy people once a decision is made.  Making a decision and moving on it usually seems to cause less frustration with a team than trying to come up with a consensus.

When a group of us goes out to lunch, everyone has a different idea about where to go and nobody wants to make a decision.  It is so frustrating.  Every one of us has experienced the following with our partner:

Where do you want to go tonight for dinner?
I don’t care, you decide.
How about X?
No, I don’t feel like X.
OK, we’ll go to Y.
No, I went Y last week.
Well you obviously care!  You decide!

At this point an almost irresistible urge to floor it and steer towards the nearest massive object erupts from deep inside us.

Consider this:

In an often cited example from a psychologist at Columbia University, a display table of jams was setup at a gourmet food shop. On Day 1, six flavors were displayed; on Day 2, 30 different flavors.

Although the display of 30 flavors attracted more attention, shoppers were only one-tenth as likely to make a purchase.

Faced with multiple options – we face paralysis by analysis.

Or this: recently discussed the pros and cons of having choice on a web site. According to a seminar they gave in October, 2006:

Too many choices fragment a prospect’s attention. In a split test, we simplified from 3 columns to 1, the subscription process from 2 pages to 1, and reducing the number of subscription options from 3 to 2 resulted in conversion rate increasing 42% and revenues more than doubled.

So what should we do?

Ihave been paralyzed by choice lately.  I’ve been observing the paralyzing effect of alternative discussions at work with too many people involved and I am frustrated to no end by it.  So I’m going back to what has always worked before and just make decisions quickly and go with them without looking back.  I’m not going to slide down the unending slope of A or B; B or C; C or D, that we also seem to get into.

It is so simple but so counter-intuitive.  Limit your own choices and if possible limit the choices of others.  We will all be much happier as a result.  We’ve come full circle and back to Leo Babauta again: The Power of Less.

choices, choices, choices

choices, choices, choices

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

barb February 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

You think alot like I do Stephen. Sometimes I just shut everything and everyone off… although that is certainly not the best decision or coping mechanism–but it works for me when i’ve had it. The toughest part…. getting back into the game because it is so much easier to disappear.


Rat Race Trap February 1, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for your thoughts. I would recommend getting the book by Leo Babauta Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life by Leo Babauta

. It has an incredibly calming effect on me when I follow his advice. Do less and achieve more sounds strange but it works. You can be happier and more successful at the same time.


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