Seven Ways That Choice Makes Your Life Hell

Do you think that having more choices is good for you?

Choice is critical to the feeling and practice of freedom. Without choice, you would be doing exactly what you’re told to do, every moment of the day.

You’d be following your programming like a machine with no soul.

A kind of pretend choice is where you can choose between the options that are given you, but the options seem empty of value, or virtually identical.
Typically, in that case, you have no power to change the options that are available.

That’s not much of a choice either!

Real choice, on the other hand, goes way beyond the choices that the world drops in front you.

You think about what’s possible for you, and you choose to go after those possibilities. These kind of choices can lead you to extraordinary places within yourself.

These choices are critical to finding the greatness within you.
These choices are critical to making a better world.

There are many wonderful things that we can say about choice, and I’ve written about the positive side of it many times.

Choices that make your world dark and bitter

But it’s not all joy and wonder and fun and games.
In fact, sometimes choice brings us hell on earth.

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

Even though some choice is good, we’ll explain why too much choice can be an incredible burden.

I’ve extracted and combined the many ideas that Schwartz discusses into 7 key issues. Each of these issues, if you’re unaware of it, and unprepared for it, is like a pit or gateway that opens into a more burdened, dysfunctional life – a personal hell.

These gates are not about one-time problems. They relate to ongoing, chronic issues.

Gateway to Hell

The First Gate: More products, more choices, more effort
There have never been more choices, in breakfast cereals, cookies, cars – nearly every consumer product you can think of. But this choice has a cost.

Studies show that people want more control over the details of their lives, at the same time they also want to simplify their lives. In other words, they want more choices, but they don’t want to deal with the complexity that comes with all those choices.

If you had to make a choice every second about what to do, you would go crazy.
Habits and rules and customs make certain behavior automatic so you don’t have to choose in those situations. This can make life simpler, but at the cost of missing some opportunities.

In studies, people will tell you that they’re happy to have more choices, but in practice they don’t begin to make use of all the opportunities they have to make choices.

The explosion of options and opportunities that is everywhere in affluent countries has 3 related, unfortunate events

  • Decisions require more effort
  • Mistakes are more likely
  • Psychological consequences of mistakes more severe.

There are so many options, wherever you turn, that researching and deciding can eat up your time, and your time is your life. You feel this.
No one has enough time, and it’s getting worse.

You feel that all of these choices, so many of them about trivial things, are an unfair burden that is stealing your life from you.

The Second Gate: Expert Choices
Even worse is the increasing freedom that your doctor gives you to choose your treatment. Doctors never used to ask a patient’s opinion about anything medical, so it’s great that we’re starting to be informed and have choices.

But again, studies show that patients often don’t want the freedom that has been given them.

65% of people say they would want to choose their treatment if they got cancer, but only 12% actually want to choose their treatment, after they get cancer.

In a life and death situation that requires expertise that you don’t have, it’s frightening and dangerous to make decisions. It increases your stress level, and makes you unhappy.

Even if you can find good information to help you decide among options, do you really know how to analyze, sift, weigh, and evaluate it to make the right choices? I love looking for information on the web, but when there are a thousand opinions about everything, how do you use that information?

The Third Gate: You are Your Choices
More and more, you and I use our choices to tell the world who we are and what we care about. Often you will make choices to express who you are, even when you know that those choices have no real consequences.

For example, there’s a true story about two friends who drove together to the American embassy in a foreign country to vote, even though each knew that they would vote for competing candidates and cancel out each other’s vote.

You use your choices to define who you are, sometimes so others know, and sometimes, just so you know.

This is all great.
But, living with more and more choices, you start using more and more of them to express who you are. The most trivial choices become important when you think that others will judge you based on those choices.

And when you feel that every choice is being watched, your discomfort and stress level goes up, and up.

The Fourth Gate: Negative Media Rules the World
You’re being attacked with more and more information every day. It’s natural to expect yourself to pay attention to what’s important and take action on it.

You tell yourself that all the time.
But in the face of a growing mountain of information, you can’t satisfy that sense of responsibility.

And studies show that we give more weight to information based on how vivid, and how negative it is.
It’s the unfortunate truth that negative information draws your attention more than positive. I guess it’s part of your survival programming to react to the negative more strongly.

And the media abuses that knowledge to focus on the negative to hold your attention, and maybe sell you something.

And then you expect yourself to do something with all that information? You can’t just ignore it, can you?
And another problem.
Studies show that you take the frequency of certain events being reported as evidence of the pervasiveness of those events. The media uses the negative because it grabs our attention, and your natural response is to think that the negative dominates the whole world.

This distortion causes you to dramatically miscalculate the various risks you face in life, and leads to some very bad choices.

(In Part II, we’ll discuss the remaining three gates that can lead you to a hellish life, when you’re unaware of them.)

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