Spoilt for choice

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

The more choices we have, the more regret we have as well, life coach Jan Aitken writes. 

Last year my Christmas tree of many years broke.

Hardly life-shattering, but as I'm a true lover of most things Christmas (though not so much now that it seems to begin earlier and earlier every year in the shops), I thought a replacement tree was a necessity.

Off I went on the simple task of purchasing a new fake tree for this year's festivities. Alas, it wasn't as simple as I had recalled from years gone by.

I was greeted by several different species of pine to choose from, differing tips for the ends of the branches, a multitude of heights, colours (surely Christmas trees are green?) and features I had not imagined. They were priced from reasonable to eye-watering.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I was stumped (no pun intended).

I started to go through the pros and cons of them all, weighing this one against that one, what if that one ... Hm, how about ... Oooh that's cool but ... I froze, I was caught in the classic trap of analysis paralysis.

I was heard to mutter (not for the first time) ''just give me a choice of two''. Frankly, I had too many choices.

On the whole, having choices is great, it's part of our Western culture to have some autonomy and to be able to choose what we want in our lives: our careers, our hobbies, what sport we play, what subjects we study at school, what food we eat etc.

Generally we get to choose and have some influence over most aspects of our lives. Having choice equates to freedom! Having freedom is fundamentally good, it's important for creating happy and fulfilling lives.

So, if having choice makes us happy and fulfilled, wouldn't having even more choices make us even more happy and more fulfilled?

Apparently not. It tends to make us more confused and fill us with regret.

I was relieved when I read some work by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College in the United States. I learnt I'm not the only person to find the staggering amount of choices we are faced with sometimes overwhelming.

Schwartz has written a book called The paradox of choice - why more is less. In it he talks about his local supermarket having 175 types of salad dressing and 285 varieties of biscuits. He calls these an example of the ''blizzard of choices'' we face daily.

When faced with so many options, people have trouble making any choice at all and if they do choose one item over another, Schwartz found that we are often less satisfied with the result.

It seems this happens because, with so many options to pick from, it's easy to imagine, for example after you get your salad dressing home and try it, that you could have made a better choice.

This imagined alternative is tantalising enough to spark feelings of regret, and regret subtracts from whatever joy you might have about the item you chose even if you made a very good choice.

Simply put, the more choices we have, the more regret we have as well.

Let's think about the dozens of everyday decisions and choices we make, for example where to eat? What to wear? What shirt/shoes to buy? What box of cereal?

How do we go about making decisions and choices in a healthy way?

Those who make choices based on an item being ''good enough or excellent'' tend to be happier and more satisfied than those who seek and accept only the very best, even if it's not attainable!

So drop the search for perfection. Perfection doesn't exist and you'll be setting yourself up for failure.

Be clear about why you want something and what you want it to do. Does it fit in with your values? How will it make your life better?

If you're buying something to impress someone or to out do a friend, neighbour or family member then chances are the buzz will be shortlived, or they may upgrade and leave you feeling worse off.

When you're shopping for things and you find yourself stuck with choice overload, walk away, clear your mind and remind yourself what you want and why you want it. If you're really tied in a knot then stick with a brand or style you know and like.

Back to my Christmas-tree dilemma.

For me a Christmas tree is fun, something to hang the decorations on that I have collected from around the world. Many of the decorations have been given to me by friends and I love bringing them out once a year for a good airing.

I don't need a life-size Norfolk pine complete with integrated lights that is eye-wateringly expensive. I want a 6ft, green tree on a good solid stand, that's all and that's good enough for me.

• Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz

Twitter:@jan-aitken

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