The Price of Choice

Are the endless choices we’re presented with making us anxious?

Posted Jun 30, 2017

Throughout our lives, we face endless choice anxiety, trying to decide what's "bad" or "good".
Source: Pixabay

Figuring out how we want to live today can be like trying to find our way through a Cheesecake Factory® menu. It’s one thing when we’re trying to decide over Salted Caramel or Red Velvet, it’s another when we have bigger choices to make. Think of the changes we’ve seen unfold over time:

On love:

Boomers (born 1945-1960): I’ve been married longer than the sum of all your friends’ relationships.
Generation X (born 1961-1980): My partner and I are consciously uncoupling.
Millennials (born 1981-1995): Does this seem like an okay first wedding dress?         Gen 2020 (born after 1995): I much prefer hook-ups over break ups.

On parenting:

Boomers: Children should be seen and not heard. Or they’ll get a slap.
Generation X: We’re not your friend, but we will listen.
Millennials: Break out the bubble wrap and helmets.                                                      Gen 2020: There's more parenting styles than cheesecake flavors.

On work:

Boomers: I’ve stayed at the same company for longer than you’ve been alive.
Generation X: I only moved a couple times, when there was good reason.
Millennials: I’ll stay for no longer than 4.4 years, then start my own company.              Gen 2020: I didn't make it through the interview. They wanted me to live to work, and I need balance.

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less says that our tendency to hold choice as sacred, as the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination, might be setting us up for unnecessary anxiety. We fret over decisions before we even make them, set ourselves up with unrealistically high expectations, then blame ourselves for our perceived failures.

We should never lose sight that choices are a privilege—not everyone has them. But anything goes can leave us marinating in worry and angst. You can do anything seems a lot better than you don’t have a choice, but in reality, neither extreme is ideal.

At every age and life stage, we face what we see as “right” or “wrong” choices. In Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Richard Thalar and Cass Sunstein draw upon behavioral science and economics to explain that the assumption that we typically make choices in our best interest is false. They emphasize that we often take the path of least resistance, defaulting to either doing nothing, or what’s fast and automatic. They say we need to learn “choice architecture” to help bring us to better decisions.

Like our trips to the Cheesecake Factory®, we can end up overindulging with all the choices at hand. Here are some ways to set yourself up to make choices that don’t weigh you down:

1. Avoid overconsumption. University of Michigan researcher Raymond De Young calls for an “urgent transition” from the prevailing thinking that choice abundance equals prosperity. He worries that we will continue to experience unwelcome consequences of attempting “limitless growth on a finite planet”. De Young suggests making choices that honor simplicity, frugality, and sustainability will serve us well.

2. Consider context. Research shows that the generation we are born into influences our decisions more than most of the factors we commonly associate as critical, like parenting or what schools we attended. None of us operate in a vacuum, and rather than celebrating or condemning one norm over the other, it’s important learn from history so we can continue to progress without destroying ourselves in the process.

3. Practice gratitude. Life does not always allow for choices. Time and space, along with socioeconomic factors, social institutions, conditioning and identities dictate much of our lives. If we are in a situation where we have options, taking time to reflect on that privilege is key for our well-being and collective livelihood. When we appreciate what we have, we spend less time worried about the luxury of choice. We can then shift our consciousness towards making life better for everyone, not just ourselves. This might be the best choice of all. 

Dr. Kristen Lee, known as “Dr. Kris”, is an award-winning behavioral science professor, clinician and author from Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Kris is a licensed independent clinical social worker known for her advocacy in promoting increased mental health integration in social policies and institutions to facilitate access and improved health outcomes in the U.S. and across the globe. She is the author of RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Motivational Book of 2015, and the upcoming Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking.