Happiness…has much to do with expectations and choice

Happiness…has much to do with expectations and choice

Check out this great article written by Sacha Molitorisz and published in the SMH over the weekend…

Choose happiness – limit choice. So say some experts on the question of whether our free, individualist, choice-heavy world actually creates more quandaries for us.

Choice is good, right? Well yes, but even the chief executive of Choice admits too much of it can be a bad thing.

''When it comes to mobile phone plans, we call it a confuse-opoly,'' Nick Stace says. ''Often phone companies talk in terms of units, not minutes. They'll say, 'You get 300 free units.' But what is a unit? How on earth can an individual make the right decision?''

An individual can't. What's more, mobile phones are merely the tip of the choiceberg.

In the Western world, choice is a top-shelf ideal. With its links to individualism and self-expression, freedom of choice is a fundamental value. It underpins our economies, our way of thinking and our way of life. Yet academics such as the US psychologist Barry Schwartz argue that in the West we now face too many choices. This, he says, can cause us to make bad choices, or can paralyse us into making no choice at all. Worse, it can cause depression.

''There is good reason to believe that overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society,'' says Schwartz, who has counted 175 varieties of salad dressing in his supermarket.

Schwartz, the Dorwin Cartwright professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has been refining his case in articles, talks and the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He argues that we need to limit, not expand, our choices, in everything from goods to ideology. In a sense, he's practising what he preaches: at heart, he offers only one argument.

''The only change from seven years ago when I wrote the book,'' he says, ''is that the economic downturn may have worked to reduce effective choice for lots of people, though the world still provides a million versions of everything. This is especially true of culture, where people can customise everything they read, watch or listen to.''

His point is not new, echoing the exhortations of Epicurus, Buddha and Gandhi to live a simple life. What is new is the range of options available to the average Western citizen, not just in consumer goods but in lifestyle and beliefs. What shall I be? Single, married or de facto? Catholic, Buddhist or atheist? Shall I have IVF, adopt a toddler or remain a childless Surry Hills hipster?

Jenn Barrie is a Perth teacher who recently had her eyes opened to all the choices on offer in Australia.

''In the last two years I have experienced many cultures, none with the degree of choice we have in Australia,'' she says.

In 2010, during a two-year sailing adventure, Barrie, her husband, Andrew, and their two daughters were north of Papua New Guinea when they encountered 13-metre waves and 200km/h winds during a storm. With both anchors and the keel of their catamaran lost, the Barries spent 12 hours adrift before bumping into the island of Mogmog in the Ulithi atoll.

The family of four spent the next five months shipwrecked among the island's 200 residents, living without electricity, running water or shops. And whereas the islanders fished, tended their chickens and grew bananas and pumpkins, the Barries had to buy their provisions. These transactions proved to be unpredictable and irregular.

''On the island of Mogmog, there are no vehicles,'' says Barrie, who has written a book about her adventure. ''Supplies come by ship from Yap, some 180 kilometres away, roughly every 14 weeks. We were reliant on the ships and the store in Yap. When we placed an order with the store it was like Christmas: you never knew what you were going to get. I asked for tinned vegies, we got chocolate mousse. Choice, in a consumer sense, became irrelevant.''

Returning to Perth last year, Barrie was stunned.

''When we returned to Perth, my daughter Di and I went to Woolies to do grocery shopping. I walked in the door and just stopped. I didn't move for about a minute. Especially overwhelming was the vast array of fresh fruit and vegies. And yesterday I was standing at the fridge, saying out loud, 'Apple? Pear? Apple? Pear?' Our 11-year-old daughter wandered past and said, 'Aren't you lucky to have the choice?'''

Unlike Schwartz, Barrie regards all this choice as desirable rather than problematic.

''I can't help but feel that the level of choice here is fantastic,'' she says. ''Unless one has a medical predisposition to a mental condition, to be overwhelmed by our choices is, to me, frankly self-indulgent.''

Even Schwartz concedes some people deal well with the abundance of options in modern life. Many do, he says, but many don't. He divides people into ''maximisers'' and ''satisficers'': ''maximisers'' always aim to make the best possible choice, whereas ''satisficers'' tend to be satisfied with good enough.

As Schwartz writes: ''No one can check out every option, but maximisers strive towards that goal, and so making a decision becomes increasingly daunting as the number of choices rises. Worse, after making a selection, they are nagged by the alternatives they have not had time to investigate. In the end, they are more likely to make better objective choices than satisficers but get less satisfaction from them.''

The consequences of these choices extend far beyond buying the best tin of tuna.

''Individuals with high maximisation scores experienced less satisfaction with life and were less happy, less optimistic and more depressed than people with low maximisation scores,'' Schwartz writes. ''Indeed, those with extreme maximisation ratings had depression scores that placed them in the borderline clinical range.''

…keep reading the full and original article HERE