Email This List Email This List Print This List Print This List

Cur­ing Your Rest­less­ness: Lim­it­ing Your Choices

A few weeks ago, we talked about a prob­lem plaguing many men these days, mod­ern neur­as­thenia, a feel­ing of anxious­ness or rest­less­ness. In this fol­low-up, we’ll delve deep­er into what is caus­ing this rest­less­ness and how it can be cured.

Back in our grand­fath­ers’ day, there weren’t as many choices about what do with one’s life. And in our great-grand­fath­ers time, there were even few­er choices. You might take over the fam­ily farm or fam­ily busi­ness or choose to pur­sue one of the trades.

These days we’re faced with a ver­it­able onslaught of choices. What col­lege should we go to? Pub­lic or private? Which of dozens of majors should we choose? Should we go to grad school or law school? What law school should we choose?

And besides the myri­ad of life choices we must make, we are bom­barded each day with the neces­sity of mak­ing an end­less stream of little mundane decisions. We stand in the cer­eal aisle of the gro­cery store as shelves and shelves of dif­fer­ent ways to eat corn and wheat stretch as far as the eye can see in either dir­ec­tion. The web gives us mil­lions of dif­fer­ent sites to read. Where­as our grand­fath­ers had 5 chan­nels on the TV to watch, we have 850.

On the face of it, more choices are an unmit­ig­ated good thing. Amer­ic­ans espe­cially prize hav­ing as many choices as pos­sible. Before the turn of the 19th cen­tury, free­dom was defined as self-suf­fi­ciency, the free­dom to own your own land and tools, and eke out a liv­ing with your own hands. As con­sumer­ism became a dom­in­ate force in the cul­ture, free­dom was redefined to mean the free­dom to choose, to choose between dif­fer­ent items and life­styles, to choose things we believed fit out tastes and per­son­al­ity more than oth­ers. This was the begin­ning of defin­ing ourselves by what we buy, instead of who we are and what we do, but that is anoth­er dis­cus­sion for anoth­er day.

Suf­fice it to say that for the last cen­tury our con­cepts of choice and free­dom have been inex­tric­ably con­nec­ted. Smart­ing from Rus­sia hav­ing drawn first blood in the space race by launch­ing Sput­nik, Kruschev and Nix­on held their fam­ous “Kit­chen Debate,” in which Nix­on argued for the superi­or­ity of the Amer­ic­an way of life by point­ing to the num­ber and superi­or­ity of our goods and appli­ances-Pep­si and cake mixes, dish­wash­ers and lawn­mowers, TV din­ners and lip­stick.

But is so much choice always the best thing for us? The hap­pi­ness of Amer­ic­ans has slowly fallen over the past dec­ades and cur­rently 1 out of 10 of us are tak­ing anti-depress­ants. If more choices equaled more hap­pi­ness, we’d all be blissed out right now. But we’re not.

Now make no mis­take about it-choice is great. It lets us select what we value and express our per­son­al­it­ies. Choices give us autonomy and the oppor­tun­ity to pur­sue our per­son­al desires and dreams. They allow us to exert con­trol over our lives and avoid feel­ing help­less. Choices give us the chance to cre­ate our own des­tiny, and they are essen­tial to our psy­cho­lo­gic­al well-being.

But there’s a point of dimin­ish­ing returns, a point where instead of mit­ig­at­ing a sense of help­less­ness and apathy, they actu­ally increase it. Only 9% of people polled in 1966 agreed with the state­ment, “I feel left out of things going on around me.” In 1986, 37% of people felt that way. I ima­gine the num­ber is even high­er today. What’s going on?

How Choice Can Be Demo­tiv­at­ing

In a high end gro­cery store, tables offered cus­tom­ers a chance to sample either 24 or 6 dif­fer­ent jams. Shop­pers were offered a dol­lar off coupon if they bought a jar. The table with 24 jams attrac­ted a big­ger crowd than the 6 jams table, but people ended up tast­ing about the same num­ber of jams at each. The big dif­fer­ence was in how many of the samplers were con­ver­ted into cus­tom­ers; only 3% of people at the 24 jams table bought a jar, while 30% of the samplers at the 6 jar table bought a jar.

What’s going on here? Why did increas­ing the num­ber of choices actu­ally decrease people’s abil­ity to make a decision?

Haunted by Oppor­tun­ity Costs

Eco­nom­ists use the term “oppor­tun­ity costs” to describe the things a per­son misses out on when they choose one path or item over anoth­er. If you’re choos­ing between going to the movies and going to a base­ball game, and you choose the lat­ter, your oppor­tun­ity cost is the movie that you won’t get to see. While strict eco­nom­ic the­ory says that we should only con­sider the oppor­tun­ity costs asso­ci­ated with the next best choice, the real­ity is that each choice has fea­tures that could put it on top, depend­ing on the cri­ter­ia on which you are rank­ing them. And we end up feel­ing the oppor­tun­ity costs not just from the next best choice, but from all the choices that we con­sider. Thus the more options we are faced with, the more oppor­tun­ity costs we have to accept, and the more unhappy and rest­less we become.

As we’ve said, choices are good, but there’s comes a point of dimin­ish­ing returns. And that point is reached when the oppor­tun­ity costs become so great that you can­not enjoy the choice that you make. The accom­pa­ny­ing trade-offs haunt you and rob you of tak­ing sat­is­fac­tion in your chosen course. Or, as happened to the jam samplers, just the idea of mak­ing so many trade-offs is enough to dis­suade you from mak­ing a choice at all. For on the one hand, you miss out on a par­tic­u­lar jar of jam, but on the oth­er, you don’t have to think about all the oth­er jams you passed up. You see an attract­ive choice, but the oth­er choices also have attract­ive qual­it­ies too, which neg­ates the attract­ive­ness of the first choice. That choice no longer seems to be very spe­cial and thus ceases to feel worth pur­su­ing.

Now the jam is a trivi­al mat­ter, but the point car­ries over to the big­ger choices we have to make. There are so many dif­fer­ent options that we’re temp­ted to check-out and not choose any­thing at all in order to avoid deal­ing with the oppor­tun­ity costs of our decisions. We get stuck at the jam table of life, want­ing to choose some­thing but unwill­ing to shut any oth­er choices out, and totally para­lyzed by our iner­tia. And we’re anxious, because oth­er people are com­ing up and buy­ing the jam and will there even be any jam when we want some? But dam­nit if we can’t move, and oh no, that per­son just took some more jam!

The Cycle of Rest­less­ness

Unwill­ing to deal with poten­tial trade-offs, many men decide the best course is not to choose at all, with the idea that keep­ing as many options open as pos­sible offers the most free­dom and the most hap­pi­ness. But as intu­it­ive as that might seem, stud­ies show that it just doesn’t work that way. Barry Schwartz, author of The Para­dox of Choice, says:

What could cre­ate lar­ger oppor­tun­ity costs than choos­ing one mate and los­ing the chance to enjoy all the attract­ive fea­tures of oth­er poten­tial spouses? People also stay in their jobs less than half as long, on aver­age, as they did a gen­er­a­tion ago. Where­as delay­ing mar­riage and avoid­ing com­mit­ment to a par­tic­u­lar job would seem to pro­mote self-dis­cov­ery, this free­dom and self-explor­a­tion seems to leave many people feel­ing more lost than found.”

Men get caught up in what I will call the cycle of rest­less­ness. Con­fron­ted with the numer­ous choices of life, men feel rest­less and believe that the cure to the prob­lem is more free­dom and choices. Thus they detach them­selves from their com­mit­ments. But this only cre­ates more choices in their life, which makes them feel more rest­less and the cycle con­tin­ues.

Break­ing the Cycle: Mak­ing Com­mit­ments

Stud­ies have shown that doing things like get­ting mar­ried, being close to one’s fam­ily, hav­ing good friends, and being involved in reli­gious com­munit­ies are all cor­rel­ated with a great­er sense of hap­pi­ness and sat­is­fac­tion. Now, it’s impossible to say that these com­mit­ments caused the hap­pi­ness, but it’s still inter­est­ing to note that these things, which lim­it some of your choices and free­dom, are con­nec­ted with great­er, not less­er hap­pi­ness.

Think about elec­tri­city. It’s a neb­u­lous force that can­not be seen with the human eye. It needs a cord, a con­duit for it to be use­ful and power our lives. Hap­pi­ness is the same way; without any con­straints, any aven­ues for it to travel to us, it remains a hazy cloud, all around us but frus­trat­ingly ungrasp­able.

A monk once took his stu­dents for a walk along a river. First he showed them a place where the banks of the river were very far apart. Here the water ran slow and stag­nant. Then he took him to a place where the banks were much closer togeth­er. Here the water ran fast and clear.

While leav­ing every pos­sible door open in our lives may seem to prom­ise the most hap­pi­ness, pla­cing some con­straints on our choices can actu­ally increase the amount of pleas­ure and sat­is­fac­tion in our lives.

Lim­it­ing Our Choices

But what does this mean? Should we marry the first girl that bats her eyes at us and stay at any job no mat­ter how mind numb­ing it is?

Of course not. Mak­ing com­mit­ments willy nilly, simply in the hopes of hav­ing less choices, will make you less happy, not more. Rather, it means that we need to redir­ect the ener­gies we waste flit­ting from pos­sib­il­ity to pos­sib­il­ity, into under­stand­ing what we really want in life and the trade-offs we are will­ing to make.

In a time where many things, from our lattes to our RSS feeds, can be exactly tailored to our per­son­al desires, many of us make the sub­con­scious leap to believ­ing that it’s pos­sible foreverything in life to exactly align with our tastes. Thus, we add to the bevy of already exist­ing choices, anoth­er, albeit false one. We com­bine all the desir­able qual­it­ies we can think of into one “per­fect” pos­sib­il­ity, one that will involve no trade-offs what­so­ever, and we then go from col­lege to col­lege, woman to woman, and job to job, search­ing for this per­fect choice to mater­i­al­ize.

But life is not a Star­bucks. Every choice has at least a few trade-offs. If you want more time, then you’ll prob­ably get less pay. If you want to be an entre­pren­eur, then you’ll have to give up secur­ity. If you want to marry a pious, intel­li­gent woman, she prob­ably won’t also be a hot run­way mod­el who is a freak in the bed­room.

The trick to cur­ing your rest­less­ness is to fig­ure out which trade-offs you’re will­ing to accept and what things you are unwill­ing to com­prom­ise on. You can then greatly nar­row the options to pur­sue. If being the same reli­gion as your future wife is a deal break­er, you’ve just cut out a wide swath of the pop­u­la­tion. If you also can­not be mar­ried to a spend­thrift, then more choices can be elim­in­ated. Is hav­ing a sense of humor required? Alright, now you have a bet­ter idea of who to date and don’t have to pur­sue every ran­dom girl who you think is cute.

Dat­ing 30 women and apply­ing to 15 col­leges may seem like the best way to find what’s best for you, but remem­ber, it will back­fire in the end. You’ve simply amp­li­fied the oppor­tun­ity costs and set your­self up for regret and “what ifs” when you’re finally forced to make a choice. Define your core val­ues, under­stand what you really want out of life, and then focus only on the choices that fit those para­met­ers. And if you like Capt’n Crunch, stick with it.

admin has written 133 articles