A full wardrobe and still “nothing to wear”? You might be having a little bit of choice anxiety.
How often have you given your bedroom a cyclone-like makeover in the morning? Hurling garments far and wide across your room, trying to select the best option from an already overstuffed cupboard, and doing a remarkable impression of an extreme weather event while you’re at it – we’ve all been there. But why?
It’s undeniably a first-world problem, but still, a real one – the worry that you might put on an outfit and, when you’ve reached your destination, find out that you’re wearing The Wrong Thing. And in the end, a simple, daily decision turns into a mania-inducing 30 minutes that only leaves you feeling tired and defeated. So imagine how this feeling of anxiety multiplies when we’re trying to decide on something that’s actually significant – like a career change, or a major purchase.
Despite the stress it causes, the reason why we agonise over decisions is actually quite simple. According to a study co-authored by Professor Hazel Rose Markus from Stanford University, the basic fact is that we simply have too many options to choose from.
Wait, what? Yes, choice might seem more like a luxury than a problem, but in fact, Markus found that too much variety makes us obsessed with what our decisions say about us. Then, after making our selection, we worry about whether we’ve made the right choice. The result of all this “choice anxiety” is people who are almost always dissatisfi ed, no matter what they pick, and who are so focused on themselves that they lack empathy.
“[Too much] choice can produce numbing uncertainty, depression and selfishness,” says Markus. So if you think about it, the way luxury stores display a single watch or handbag in their enormous display windows now makes sense. Less really is more.
We can’t handle all the choices
For most of human history, resources have been scarce. So the standard decision since the dawn of time has been: “Take it or leave it” – you grab the good, ditch the bad. In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, social theorist Barry Schwartz writes that “[distinguishing] between good and bad is far simpler than distinguishing good from better from best. After millions of years of survival based on simple distinctions, it may simply be that we are biologically unprepared for the number of choices we face in the modern world.”
This means that the bafflement you feel at the supermarket when confronting a mountain of various toilet papers actually has a basis in evolutionary science. A comforting fact, no?
Being happy with your decision
Most people are what Schwartz calls “maximisers” – we want the best product at the lowest price, the highest salary for the minimum amount of work. At the other end of the camp are the “satisficers” – people who are happy to settle for something that is good enough, and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better out there. Interestingly, Schwartz’s research has shown a correlation between being a value maximiser and being unhappy.
He writes, “After making a selection, [maximisers] are nagged by the options they didn’t have time to investigate. It’s hard to go through life regretting every decision you make because it might not have been the best possible decision. And it’s easy to see that if you experience regret on a regular basis, it will rob you of at least some of the satisfaction that your good decisions warrant.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Herbert Simon puts forward a similar theory: that when you factor in the costs of time, money and stress that maximizers incur whenever they make a decision, being a satisficer – and going with what’s “good enough” – is actually the best option.
The “perfect” option just doesn’t exist
When a value maximiser has hundreds of potential career paths available to her, and she chooses one that isn’t “perfect’, she’ll likely see it as a failure – a failure that could have been prevented if she picked another route. Schwartz writes, “Not only do we expect perfection in all things, but we expect to produce this perfection ourselves.” He concludes that when we inevitably fail, our culture of individualism encourages us to blame ourselves. The resulting anger we feel at ourselves when things don’t go to plan is especially common around issues of education, career and relationships, and can result in serious psychological stress. Which means that the sooner we get over the myth of the perfect choice, the happier we’ll be.
Controlling your expectations
The best way to overcome choice anxiety is to be grateful for the good in our lives, and for the decisions we’ve made. “Individuals who regularly experience and express gratitude are physically healthier, more optimistic about the future, [more] energetic [and more] likely to achieve personal goals,” says Schwartz.
Another way to curb your anxiety is to stop your brain when it starts throwing up “What if…?” scenarios. Ruminating on things you can’t change paves a direct route to Crazy Town. Controlling your expectations and urge to “keep up with the Joneses” will also help you to feel better about your decisions, because you won’t constantly be comparing your handbag/job/house with someone else’s.
Hell, it might even reduce the time it takes you to get ready in the morning. Because, really, life’s too short to hurl clothes all over your bedroom every time you need to make a decision about #whatiworetoday.
The sooner we get over the myth of the perfect choice, the happier we’ll be.