More Choices Mean Less Happiness

Each choice we make, it seems, takes a little bit out of us. (Photo: Lisa S./Shutterstock)

When I was 7, my grandmother's friend Meera visited us from her native India (my grandmother had met Meera and stayed with her when she had spent some months traveling through India, so when Meera came to the U.S., my grandma did the same for her). I remember her as one of the most incredibly kind human beings I had ever met in my life, and she taught me to make chapati, the crispy Indian bread, in our kitchen, and went swimming with us at the lake. But the most memorable part of her visit in the early '80s was when we went to the supermarket. She had been told, of course, by my grandmother and others, what it was like. But once inside, she wandered, completely overwhelmed. We met her outside, our cart piled high with groceries.

Meera told us that she had to wait outside because she got totally overwhelmed in the store. The cereal aisle alone baffled her. "How do you decide? So many choices!" she wondered. I can still picture her standing in front of the ShopRite, shaking her head. Of course, my grandma and I were used to the plethora of choices for every product (in terms of cereal, there were no choices in my family anyway — my grandma refused to "waste money on puffed air," which covered most of the commercially available boxed breakfast cereals anyway). But it was the first time in my life that I realized that sometimes, too many choices could be stressful, especially if you aren't used to them.

And it turns out, even if you've grown up with lots of options, the almost-unlimited choices available to most of us are stress-causing —and a handful of psychological studies (and marketing professionals) agree. A large-scale example of this is that happiness in the United States has actually declined over the last 30 years — as our choices have rapidly expanded — and that's probably not just correlation.

Several studies have looked at what, over time, choice does to us. Each choice we make, it seems, takes a little bit out of us, meaning that during those days when we make many choices, from what to wear from an overcrowded closet to what to eat from a list of 15 restaurants serving different foods (sound typical?), to important decision-making (you know, those at your actual job or for/with your family), makes us less able to make good decisions each time we do so. Talk about a Catch-22 of modern life.

In Barry Schwartz's TED talk (video above) "The Paradox of Choice," he details how everyday retirement investors get frozen by too many choices, how he gets befuddled by the 175 salad dressings on the shelves of his local grocery store (yep, I've gotten stuck in that aisle!), and how if one counts the components in a home-stereo store, you could conceivably configure a stereo over 6 million ways.

Baba Shiv, a marketing professor who gave another TED talk questioning the choices available in modern medical care, says, “The wisdom of the ages is that when it comes to decisions of importance, it’s best to be in charge. But are there contexts where we’re far better off taking the passenger seat and having someone else drive?”

Some would argue that one of the most advantageous parts of living in the Western world during a time of plenty is the plethora of choice we have. And I like choices, I do. I don't want to have one pair of ill-fitting pants to buy.

But, decision-making takes its toll, which is something that needs to be kept in mind. I have found that I often "pre-limit'"myself in certain situations to cut down on the overwhelming feeling of having to choose. I'll decide in advance to have a cocktail so I can ignore the beer menu when eating out, or choose to shop in a smaller grocery store (I avoid megamarts like the plague because I go into a trance and just wander around confused). What do you do to deal with limiting decisions in your life?