By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer
With a finite number of wakeful hours in any given day, we as humans are constantly forced to make choices about how to spend that time. And the options are endless. Do I wake up an hour early in order to fit in a run? Do I keep eating the same breakfast of eggs and toast? When the radio alerts me of a crash ahead, do I try my luck at a new route? I could, of course, go on for a while.
Some choices may have no obvious or immediate consequences (do I wear the red or the blue polo?), but others have the potential to bless us or haunt us for a lifetime. I’m sure you can think of a few of the more consequential choices we face: Where will I go to college? Should I even go to college? What will I study? Should I go out with that person? Should I (gulp) marry that person? Where should I live? What do I do when I can’t get a job?
The forks in the proverbial road of life may seem endless. But no matter the difficulty in making the choice of which path to take, we still have to make a decision.
In this modern world where we hear about so much opportunity, why are choices so hard? Psychologist Barry Schwartz contends that the fact that we have so many choices in the first place is part of the problem. And underlying the availability of so many choices is what Schwartz calls the “official dogma”, a western-centric notion that “the more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”
Schwartz points out that there is perhaps no better a place to see this “dogma” play out than in the grocery store. At my local Fry’s Supermarket, I can go down any aisle and be presented with dozens (if not hundreds) of options of any given product. Whether it’s cereal, salad dressing, soda or bread, there are more available options than I would know what to do with. A multiplicity of choices is detrimental, then, because it becomes extremely time consuming to determine the relative differences between any given product.
Food purchases might fall into the category of less consequential choices. But if the choices before us are too difficult to evaluate, the paralysis that follows can affect us years down the road. Schwartz gives the example of a company that offered a wide array of mutual fund options to its employees. But because employees had so many options, they opted to delay their choice. This meant that they were forgoing thousands of dollars in matching funds that their employer would have willingly provided had they opted-in to one of the plans.
Of course, all of these issues with freedom and choice are somewhat abstract. Maybe the issue is really how well people deal with uncertainty. I am the type of person that actually enjoys trying new things, and perhaps this is because I do not feel slighted if the product I choose ends up being less desirable than another potential product. I can, after all, try again the next time. I do recognize the value of simplicity though. In fact, when living in Santiago, Chile, I actually felt liberated when my only beverage options were Coke, Sprite and Fanta.
What happens, though, when we do indeed have only a limited range of choices to have to weigh, but those choices are equally valid (that is, no one option is better than the other)? Philosopher Ruth Chang argues that in the face of such a dilemma, we have to commit to one choice, and be true to that choice. If, for example, I choose to go to medical school over law school, I have to commit wholeheartedly to that endeavor. Even if in five years I find that I am working longer hours than I preferred, or am stuck in a city that I don’t enjoy, I can’t think about what life could have been like if I were a lawyer. We are not omniscient, and can never know how our lives would have unfolded if we had taken the other path. And that’s not to say that we won’t make another career change down the road. But I believe it is counterproductive to question our choices when, in the face of imperfect information, we have no good reason to favor one option over the other. “What-if” scenarios will ultimately keep us from focusing on the wonderful opportunities that surround us in the present.
Choices are hard. And I realize I haven’t written much here that might ease that burden. To be sure, there are certain choices whose consequences are not difficult to elucidate (drunk driving will often end poorly, if not with fatal results). And some people live in situations where their immediate concerns are based purely on day-to-day survival – they would cringe at the thought of the affluent fretting over too many cereal options. What I would suggest, though, is that as sentient beings with agency, we have power to shape our futures even in the face of difficult paths before us. One day at a time, and by availing ourselves of the help, advice and support of friends and family, we can make hard decisions and move forward with confidence.
Philosophers can argue over the minutiae of how best to approach Option A or Option B. I say let’s be grateful for life, and not fret too much when things don’t quite go our way. Let’s learn from our mistakes and soldier on as best we can. If during this journey of life we stick to our values, and help the downtrodden around us, we are probably doing alright.