Seven Ways That Choice Makes Your Life Hell, Part 2

Very few things in this world are one-sided, all good or all bad.
In Part 1 of this series I introduced the idea that the extraordinary human power of choice can lead us into our own personal hell.

Barry Schwartz has written an insightful book on the dark side of choice, called The Paradox of Choice.

I’ve extracted and combined the many ideas that Schwartz discusses into 7 key pathways or gateways into a personal hell.

In part one, I covered the first four gateways. In this article, we’ll discuss the remaining three gateways.

Gateway to Hell

The Fifth Gate: Missed Opportunities and Regret
Every choice that you make leaves some possibility behind.
You’re always making trade-offs: price or safety, space or style.

Any trade-off you make is unsettling.
The truth is that you and I don’t want to settle for one option, while giving up the others.

We want it all.

When you plan your future choices, studies show that you find it easy to imagine choosing one option at the expense of another (for example trading safety for cost).

But when you get to the moment of choice, you find it much harder to actually give up one possibility for another.

In this world of endless choice, you are confronted with a mountain of alternatives, each with strengths and weaknesses.

There are few simple decisions.
Instead your decisions are full of a long list of trade-offs.

Studies show that we mentally exaggerate the loss associated with making a trade-off and missing an opportunity.

It’s as if you imagine yourself already possessing all the options.
Then, in your moment of choice, you feel yourself losing all the options but one.

When many options must be left behind for a choice to be made, you have a huge collection of perceived loss. These decisions can become painful enough to leave you paralyzed.

You do nothing at all.

And if you do take action and choose, you’re weighed down by the missed opportunities, and little satisfied with the choice you’ve made, and any benefits that it brings.

Do you ever feel regret?
It’s such a haunting feeling.

It gnaws and pulls at you, and whispers that you’ve missed out on great opportunities, by making the wrong choice or doing nothing at all.

If I asked you what you regret most in the last six months, you’d probably mention actions that didn’t turn out well.

If I asked you what you regret most in your life as a whole, you’d probably identify your failures to take action, and pursue things that you’re passionate about.

When you face so many alternatives, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve made the wrong choice, and that another path would have been better.

And you get buried in regret for not taking action, because you’re afraid to make a choice, and give up all the other possibilities.

When we think about the options for a choice we’re making, we imagine the regret we will feel for making a bad choice, and this drives us to delay or avoid making any choice at all.

In today’s world of endless choices, and hesitant decisions, regret follows us everywhere, and grows stronger with every decision we make, and fail to make.

The Sixth Gate: The Curse of Comparison

Whenever you say that something is good or bad, there is an implicit or explicit comparison to something else.

Social scientist Alex Michalos writes that people measure their satisfaction based on thinking about three gaps:

  1. The gap between what you have and what you want
  2. The gap between what you have and what you think others like you have
  3. The gap between what you have and the best you have had in the past

When you encounter more and more options, you are driven to want more and more.

You can see others enjoying those possibilities, whether in real life, or the media, and imagine yourself in their place.

You can see yourself possessing those things, or enjoying those experiences, or being that person.

Comparisons between what we have and what we might have can be a powerful driving force to motivate us to take action.
That sounds like a good thing, and it often is.

Comparisons can enhance or diminish your experience of what you have.
But typically, our comparisons make what we have seem dull and empty.

What if those comparisons are not used to motivate us?
What if comparison is used in the absence of action?

In a world of options, and possibilities, comparison can readily convince us to be unhappy or unsatisfied with what we have.

How can any one option compare with a whole world of alternatives?
The potential excitement and mystery of the new and unknown dulls the familiar beauty that we already know.

And if we are not ready or willing to take action to change our situation, we are setting ourselves up to be miserable.

The Seventh Gate: Control and Blame

Do you need to feel in control of your life to be happy?

Studies were done where animals were put in unpleasant situations (mild shocks) that they could do nothing to stop.

These animals were later put in situations where the animals could act to positively affect their environment.

But the animals sat passively and did nothing. They had learned to be helpless.
There are many parallels between helpless animals and clinically depressed people. They both feel that they have no control over their situations, and are passive and miserable.

It’s not as simple, though, as feeling you have no control over a single situation.
There are always things that you and I have no control over.

Dr. Martin Seligman suggests that helplessness induced by failure or lack of control leads to depression if a person explains to herself that the causes of failure are far-reaching, recurring, and personal.

Do you tell yourself that your successes are a result of your own actions, in a way that’s readily repeatable, and relevant to large portions of your life?
And, do you tell yourself that any failures are due to temporary, narrowly relevant causes outside of yourself?

That’s what optimists do, according to Dr. Seligman.
Optimists see success under their own control, with endless possibilities to repeat success throughout their life. Failures are little bumps in the road that will go away.

Pessimists, on the other hand, see failure everywhere, and blame themselves for it.
They are prime candidates for serious depression.

Our world seems full of unlimited choices and possibility, but we can only get a tiny bit of it, while the rest seems forever denied to us.

We’re often disappointed with the results of our choices, and easily label our choices as failures, just because we can imagine some better alternative.

In this world of great choice, and great dissatisfaction, we see explosive growth in depression.

What’s Next?

We’ve discussed seven ways that choice can darken your life.
These are real dangers.

But the burdens that come with endless alternatives are not inevitable.
In Part 3 of this series, we’ll look at some changes in mindset that help us take advantage of choice and possibility, while avoiding the seven gates.

The Paradox of Choice Online

1 comment to Seven Ways That Choice Makes Your Life Hell, Part 2

  • Amazing how well explained, I want to print this text and have it next to my bed and in the refrigerator door so I studied and remember always this important tips to avoid end up in hell :) Great Post!

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