The American Psychological Association recently found that Millennials report more stress than any other generation. Thirty-six percent reported increased stress in the past year, and college students specifically are more anxious than ever before.
More than half of Millennials say they have lain awake at night in the past month due to stress.
What’s keeping us up?
Some causes are common sense: Three-quarters of Generation Y report that money is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress, and another three-quarters report work as a significant stressor. But there may be yet another, less-examined reason for our anxiety.
Paradoxically, our stress befalls the generation with the most optionality yet. This blessing could also be our curse.
Baby Boomers were convinced by parents who endured the Great Depression and two World Wars that a regular, risk-less job was the way to security and happiness. When our parents became by and large successful, they told us we could do everything (Soccer, violin, and Spanish, all together! “Follow your heart!”): The sky was the limit. They consulted us on where our families should vacation, what restaurants to frequent, and our daily dinner menu (resulting in Millennials being the pickiest eaters on record).
Our attitude growing up was perhaps therefore not so much “I deserve it,” but rather, “I can have it.”
This mentality pervades our adulthood, where the era of the “drop-down and click menu” presents an ever-expanding selection of consumer goods, media content, career possibilities, sexual partners, gender orientations, living spaces, lifestyles, educational pursuits, and diets.
Why? Because we can.
Yet research has repeatedly found that, despite our idealization of choice, we actually dislike too much of it. When overwhelmed with options, we tend to regret our decisions, obsess over foregone alternatives, or simply not choose at all.
In one study, participants were asked to pick a piece of art to take home. Individuals told they could later exchange the piece for another experienced less appreciation for their chosen artwork than people who had no such option. Interestingly, participants didn't anticipate this effect, instead assuming that more choice is always better.
Other research shows that the more 401(k) plans with which people are presented, the less likely they are to sign up for any. Similarly, when younger generations are faced with an abundance of stock investment choices, they often avoid the market altogether.
Thus, while most believe choice contributes to our happiness, too much of it paralyzes us. The overwhelming response to our freedom is, “What if I make the wrong decision?”
Priya Parker, an expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, calls this phenomenon "FOBO": Fear of Better Options. Millennials, says Parker, suffer from persistent anxiety about our “might-have-been lives” and “the ones that got away.”
Our subconscious “solution” to this fear is freezing:
One of Parker’s study subjects wrote, “Choosing one door to walk through means all the other doors close, and there’s no ability to return back to that path. And so rather than go through any doorway, it’s better to stand in the atrium and gaze.”
But keeping our options open is actually the last thing we should do—at least for the sake of managing our stress levels.
Here are some more effective ways to reduce our choice anxiety, informed by the work of social psychologist Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School:
Be here. Iyengar tracked graduating seniors from 11 universities during their nine-month job search. In the end, she found that those who’d essentially forgotten the jobs they wanted at the beginning of their search believed the job they finally landed was perfect. “The implication is that so much of happiness comes not from getting what you want, but from wanting what you get.”
Stop seeking all possibilities. In another Iyengar study, the fewer potential partners people met while speed-dating, the more likely participants were to evaluate them on substantive traits. But when they encountered many partners in one night, participants became overwhelmed and tended to judge more superficially. In other words, we don’t need to exhaust our options to pick a good thing.
Visualize and concretize. Drawing from Iyengar’s TED Talk, Business Insider suggests, “Focus on a specific, positive outcome to make choosing easier.” We can do this by creating vision boards or detailed lists that represent a unique, tangible possibility for our lives. The more we plan what we want, the less we stress about alternatives in the background.
Prioritize. Iyengar suggests we make a list of everything that’s important to us, and then scratch off all but five priorities: things we can’t live without. Then, we should “run with them” and “not question” whether that’s what we “really” want. Some call this a leap of faith.
We often see limiting our options as limiting ourselves. In fact, the opposite is true: When we don’t agonize over our endless selection, we capitalize on our choices, value their outcomes more, and trigger better decisions.
With unprecedented freedom of options and so much life left to live, younger generations are more responsible than ever for our fates. If we manage our options properly, we can reduce our stress and elect our purpose.