The Burden of Choice


 “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Too much of a good thing

There has never in the history of the world been a culture likes ours, so overwhelmed by choice. We are, as the saying goes, spoilt for choice. If I need to buy, say, some apples here in London I have about 20 different possibilities all within cycling distance. At many of these I have a further choice between about a dozen different varieties. and even if I can’t leave the house there are zillions of home delivery options at the click of a mouse.

If the urge takes me and I can scrape together the pennies, in a couple of days I could be on a beach, climbing a mountain or visiting a friend almost anywhere on the planet. If I feel peckish and can’t be fussed with cooking, there are thousands of possibilities to have a meal delivered, pick up a ready-meal or book a table. If I get bored with my trainers there are scores of outlets multiplied by 1000’s of products all begging me to ‘just do it’, and spend £100 on the latest, or fastest or trendiest…

Choosing my religion

There is, of course, an official dogma, promoted by politicians, economists and marketing gurus: the more choice we have the more freedom, the more autonomy and hence the more potential for maximising happiness. Any attempt to restrict consumer access to the maximum number of options is considered heretical; witness the constant demand for longer shopping hours on Sunday’s or at Christmas, as if it’s sacrilege to restrict the choice to just 70 or 80 hours a week…

If the mantra of more choice equals more happiness were even partly true we would be the most deliriously euphoric society in history. Yet, the opposite seems to be true, if the statistics for stress, depression and all kinds of psychiatric illness are to be believed. Shopping malls often strike me as the last place in town to find the truly contented; and the larger they are and the more choice they offer, the greater the fixity of the gaze, the drooping of the shoulders and the unsmiling intensity of the occupants, doomed to tread the hamster wheel of unbridled choice.

The tyranny of choice

Too much choice leads to a number of negative affects. So often we can feel paralysed by the sheer number of options. For example, studies have shown that the more pension plan options workers are offered, the less take up there is, even when it is explained that the company funds them all. Recently Tesco have reduced their number of lines from 90,000 to 30,000 realising that more is not necessarily better especially when Aldi and Lidl are doing very nicely on a bare minimum.

Another issue is that of regret. The more options we’re given the easier it becomes to imagine that we made the wrong choice. Having spent months combing the internet and visiting dozens of stores there is still that nagging feeling that the ridiculous amount of money that you forked out on the perfect sound system might have been better spent on your second choice. So we can end up feeling guilty and blaming ourselves when we think of the freedom we have to make whatever we want of out lives.

And the more choice the higher the expectations. In my youth a visit to Top Man for jeans was a doddle as the options were, frankly, negligible. Nowadays you’ve got a dozen styles to choose from and you’d think that once you’ve finally found the perfect pair they’d release enough dopamine to give you a high for weeks. When the high fails to kick in, guess what? You need the next shopping fix to keep your spirits up, and then the next. At least the chain stores aren’t disappointed, even if you are.

Then, of course, there’s FOMO, the fear of missing out. Wikipedia defines this as ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent’. This anxiety is exacerbated by social media where we’re made constantly aware of how wonderful everyone else’s life is. So the more choices the more the anxiety as you imagine that the real party, or job, or partner or investment is always the one you didn’t choose to take up.

The true self

I wonder if one of the deeper issues here isn’t about identity; how we see ourselves, value ourselves. The culture of choice presumes that we can create our own identity. We become what we choose to become; our upbringing, nationality or faith background doesn’t tell us who we are, we are free agents and free to choose who we are and how we shall be valued.

But I wonder what happens when we begin to realise that however many different fashions I follow, adventures I experience, jobs I find and leave or relationships I fall in or out of, there is no solid and immovable sub-strata that isn’t constantly shifting with my moods and compulsions and fantasies? Won’t I fall very easily into a depression when I realise that my choices of yesterday don’t express the me I feel I am today; that the identity I’m constructing is like the neighbours dog futilely chasing every passing car?

Breaking the mould

In a previous blog I spoke about the good life as living ‘simply, deeply and generously’. Unless we want to be a hermit, we have little choice but to live in the maelstrom of choice that is modern life. But there is, I believe, a way of stepping out of the wind and living above the fray.

Lowering expectations

 Part of the problem is that we believe too much of the propaganda. So often the choice, at least in the developed world, is not between the unimaginably awful and the unbelievably amazing but between different degrees of ‘all right’. For a great majority of the choices we make each day, the stress we can experience in making sure we choose well outweighs any marginal benefit of choosing one particular shampoo or party dress or dinner invitation over another. For those of us with faith, we should always be sceptical of any conviction we discover in our hearts that possession of a particular thing or experience is essential for our deepest gladness. There’s certainly nothing that I can buy in a shop or order on the Internet that can make me really happy for any length of time.

There is another good reason to choose a simpler path and reduce our options and that is the sheer obscenity of choice. If, like me, you’ve spent any time in the developing world, there are two things that hit you on returning to the choice-fest that is the West. The first is how much happier people are where the choices are limited (with the proviso that their basic material needs are being met) and the second is the indecency of having such a grossly disproportionate share of everything that one could possibly desire. On returning home I find that adverts make me feel nauseous and a shopping trip makes me doubt God’s goodness.

Maybe the greatest happiness is not in maximising choice but in reducing it: in using that freedom to increase the choices of those whose lives are blighted by having no choice. We forgo the expensive and the time-consuming, the latest or the greatest. We turn the focus away from maximising personal happiness, security or significance and turn it outwards towards those whose only choice is misery, insecurity and irrelevance. Or as Jesus put it: losing your life (i.e. your options) is the only way to really find it.

Reducing our options

 Bishop Sandy Millar, who presided at our wedding, would often remind couples on their wedding day that the time for choosing had now passed. The choice has been made- no more what-if’s or if-only’s- you’ve both, he would say, reduced your options to the absolute minimum and your job is now to throw all your energy into loving with such intensity that every day your partner will never doubt they’ve made the right choice.

Paul speaks of ‘being content with what you have for God has said I will never leave you or forsake you’. The last thing advertisers want is for any of us to be contented- happy people don’t need more stuff, more manufactured highs or much more of anything- except the beloved. Being deeply grateful for ‘every good and perfect gift’ and expressing that gratitude in service and in generous living leads to a simplicity of life and habit that becomes immune from the seductions of constant novelty and fickle fashion.

Good will ‘out

In a secular society that wants to write God out of his universe, the notion of God’s providential care can seem alien. But the whole Bible is a lesson on how God can take the poor choices of his ‘chosen’ people and turn them to good. Somehow or other God is able to take the sub-optimal choices that we make every day and ‘work all things together for good’ as Paul puts it.

Not that we shouldn’t try to choose well. It’s just that beyond and beneath and behind everything we choose there is a cosmic drama unfolding, a metanarrative of goodness and love and meaning and truth that is bringing God’s story to its glorious and surprising denouement.

Somehow our choices, both inadvertent and accidental, deliberate and decided, will all become the necessary raw materials for what, in the hands of omnipotence, will become a thing filled with light and life, joy and delight. All our choices become subsumed under His great over-riding choice to love and choose us; and the rest, as they say, is history.