November 10, 2016

Is choice such a good thing?

As we’ve grown up, the assumption that more choice brings greater happiness has been written into the fabric of the world around us. But is this really true?

I can still remember the excitement I felt when we got Sky TV at home. I was thirteen years old. I had spent a year trying to convince my dad to buy it. Finally, he was persuaded. Not by me, but because he could watch test match cricket for whole weekends at a time. For most of my childhood, I had grown up with just four TV channels, so you can imagine the joy that my brother and I felt when this shiny new box arrived, and with it, hundreds of new channels — the choices were endless.

In fact, as we’ve grown up, this assumption — that more choice brings greater happiness — has been written into the fabric of the world around us. Think about your trip to the supermarket. At the last count, Tesco sold 186 different breakfast cereals, 382 varieties of milk and 392 different types of bread [1] — that’s just breakfast! Modern retail is built on the premise that more choice equals greater consumer satisfaction. Hundreds of products vying for our attention creates a collective pressure for everyone to improve. The same can be seen in film, TV and music. As we’ve transitioned from terrestrial to multi-channel to content delivered online, the range and volume of our content has increased. Every niche audience can find something for themselves.

We’ve also embraced this principle in other parts of our lives. Historically, major life decisions weren’t always informed by choice. Marriage, children, employment; these choices were informed by societal expectations and notions of respectability. Now, social mores have shifted dramatically. We’ve come to the place where most things aren’t right or wrong in themselves, it’s simply a case of ‘whatever makes you happy’. Individual choice is the watchword of the day, the guarantor of our happiness.

But does our day-to-day experience actually match up with this? Does freedom to choose really bring with it unadulterated happiness? Barry Schwartz, American psychologist, would say not. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Less is More, he makes the argument that more choice is actually a bad thing for consumers: ‘We end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be than if we had fewer options to choose from’ [2].

As our consumerist liberty expands into every area of our lives, we become paralysed by it. My wife and I stopped shopping in big supermarkets because the whole experience became overwhelming. Each purchase was accompanied by numerous micro-choices: Should we have low-fat? Which version of low-fat? Do we want the own brand version? And by the time you’ve made your decision, you leave the supermarket still trying to convince yourself that you’ve made the best choice.

Then there are the deeper questions we keep asking: Should I keep dating my girlfriend? Is there someone better out there? Should I stay in my job? Could I get a better one? Freedom to choose also means freedom to doubt. We constantly end-up second-guessing ourselves and ruminating over these choices.

So increased choice doesn’t guarantee our happiness. Does that change how we see the universe? Well, many of us have rejected religion for the same reason that we rejected terrestrial TV. It limits our options. We prefer autonomy. We are the freedom generation. Anything that threatens to limit our choices will also limit our happiness, so we reject it.

Does experience vindicate this hypothesis? If so, why do religious people seem so happy? How could those who’ve limited their choices truly be happier? And yet, in February 2016, the Office of National Statistics reported that people of faith were happier than people of no faith [3]. Millennials, on the other hand, are the most anxious and depressed generation ever, despite possessing a greater level of freedom and choice than ever before [4].

Perhaps the freedom to choose brings with it the freedom to make the wrong decisions. Decisions that have harmful or negative consequences, both for the decision-maker and those around them. We can all think of people who’ve made terrible and self-destructive choices.

What’s the alternative? Trusting someone else to be in control of our lives doesn’t feel very attractive to us.  There’s no guarantee that person is better at making decisions than you.

That’s where belief in God is different. If it’s true that God exists, then presumably he knows what’s best for us, as he made us. When you get a table from Ikea, you don’t seek to set it up in your way, the way that makes you happy; you set it up in line with the manufacturer’s instructions. The manufacturer made it, so they know how it best fits together.

Ultimately, we can trust God with our decisions. We no longer have to scramble around, overwhelmed by the choices on offer, but we can have peace, knowing we’re living within good boundaries, safe in the knowledge that our good Father can be trusted and is leading us down the right paths.

[2] Barry Schwartz, ‘The Paradox of Choice’ at TEDGlobal (2015)
[3] Kathryn Snowdon, ‘Official “Well-Being” Statistics Show Religious People Are Happier Than Atheists’, Huffington Post (February 2016)
[4] Jesse Singal, ‘For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed’, New York Magazine (March 2016)

Jeremy Moses

Jeremy Moses
Jeremy is an Italian, Swiss, Indian, Iraqi, Jewish Londoner who has worked for multi-nationals and startups, and now helps lead a church.

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