The Brutality of Having a Choice: Too Many Options Make Us Feel Stressed & Stuck
On dangers of unlimited freedom, stagnation, and disaster porn.
It seems that God has written us off. Every time we read or watch the news, or every time we scroll through social media, there’s another plane full of civilians having crashed, further floods devastating whole villages, or a new civil war killing innocent women and their children.
In parallel, our generation as a whole has never had so much choice laid in front of them.
We can live wherever in the world we desire. We can study, travel, or volunteer for a charity. We can have children or dedicate all our time to building a career. We can marry or stay single. We can date a person of the opposite or the same sex.
The world has not become a worse place. It’s the phenomenon of information overload what causes our perception to be distorted. Whatever tragedy happens, wherever around the globe, we can know about it within seconds. And since bad news sells much better than good news, we are being fed all sorts of disaster porn day and night.
We live well. Thanks to new technologies, a big part of humanity’s knowledge is available online for free, so anyone who is after good education, not merely a prestigious degree, can build up their curriculum and gain expertise in any field possible. We can also connect to practically anyone, regardless of their location, to build rewarding relationships, ask for advice, or collaborate on common projects.
There are much fewer borders that limit our fancies, whether geographically or socially.
And yet… we are so unhappy. So many of us struggle with anxiety, insomnia, depression, behavioral disorders, substance abuse, and, last but not least, soul-crushing loneliness.
So what’s the problem with having a choice?
On one hand, we want it bad. In this regard, the internet has spoiled us in earnest. We are used to having access to hundreds of thousands of various goods, pieces of information, music, or movies within a few clicks. On the other hand, we are perpetually haunted by more even than fear — by horror, that we could have missed a better option.
The same applies to relationships. If you ask a random (reluctantly) single person, they would tell you that there’s nobody decent to choose from. The truth, however, is elsewhere.
We are not looking just for someone complementary. Someone who would make our days brighter. We are looking for someone “perfect”. And if we find ourselves in a stable and — more or less — happy relationship, we end up leaving it in order to look for a man or a woman who may be an even better fit… if we’re ever so lucky to stumble upon them.
There’s this simple equation we tend to hold in our minds:
MORE CHOICE = MORE FREEDOM
Who doesn’t want to be more free, right? Freedom! Such a noble value to strive after.
Are we free, though, if we waste hours, days, or years looking for the best option rather than settling for something or someone just good enough? Are we truly free if the boundless number of options leaves us paralyzed, unable to take any decision at all? Can we talk about enjoying more freedom if all the choices we have leave us less, not more, satisfied?
More choice doesn’t generate more freedom if our default feeling is: “I could have probably done better.”
Often it happens that in countries where majority of the population lives below the poverty line, we meet more smiling faces than in countries of supreme material comfort. The options are pretty simple there. Either you get your bowl of rice and a shelter for the day, or you don’t. If you do, you’re pleased. While somewhere in the parallel universe of the Western world a man needs to sedate himself to sleep because his job frustrates him, his wife annoys him, his mistress is way too costly, and the new sushi restaurant ruined his evening due to bad service.
The same logic applies to the sense of being stuck and unable to move forward.
We can do so much but we’re unable to do anything. For all the possibilities we have, we see only a few, none of which we deem acceptable. The seemingly unlimited freedom to do wonderful things with our lives ironically results in stagnation and misery.
If you look closely at your own journey so far, you will learn that the events and situations that made you grow as a person offered hardly any options at all. Those were likely tough, distressing, maybe even hopeless moments, which made you mobilize all your energy, resources, and abilities to survive, to succeed, to beat pain, or to protect those you love.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche famously said:
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
It would be naive to presume that most humans would seek adversity only to become more competent, powerful, content individuals. Yet, those who do — those who voluntarily limit their options, who curb their own freedom, for a certain period of time, can progress to the next level of their being.
Not every kind of stress is equal. If you’re continually under pressure without growing in any area of your personal or professional life, your energy reserves are being depleted to no purpose.
Sometimes the solution is not to get rid of stress, but quite the opposite — to add a considerable amount of it. The kind of stress that pushes you to reassess your core values and activate your hidden potential.
Do you feel stuck?
Challenge yourself to leave an unfulfilling, albeit well-paid, job or start a brand new career, enter a risky relationship or leave an unhealthy one, move to an unknown country or master a difficult skill. Get hurt. Suffer. Cry out loud. Fight to the point of utter exhaustion.
Simply said, do what you’re afraid to do, but what you know deep down that needs to be done.
Only then might you be able to see the way out. The way to the freedom of being able to tell what truly matters. The way to the life of genuine simplicity and joy.