Ours is a society of plenty. More than ever, ours is a community of prosperity, of abundance. With abundance comes the luxury of choice. Options are supposedly a good thing, especially for consumers. For example, there’s bound to be a type of jam or jelly for everyone in an aisle filled with countless jars of preserved fruit. Actively choosing to buy something like Organic Blueberry Lavender Jam adds to our personal identity and feelings of self worth. “Yes,” we say, “Organic Blueberry Lavender is our favorite jam. We affirm our personal preference when we choose it, and our unique choice makes us happy."
Additional choices and options should naturally give us an advantage, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. However, based on his evidence, more options make us less willing to actually decide on anything, or, if we do, we "end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from."
According to Schwartz, choice does little for us, except to paralyze us into anxiety and inaction. We often turn to “denial, ignorance, and willful blindness” when we are anxious and overwhelmed by choice, or if we make the wrong decision. It is too difficult and time consuming to research all the options and we defer our choices indefinitely. We become fearful of choice, fearful of failure. We don't want to fail, so we don't choose; instead, we leave the supermarket without any jam.
In order to feel good about the decisions we make, we have to find ways to limit the options we must choose between. One way to do this would be to set up guidelines for each type of choice we have to make, and strict criteria to govern these selections, so that we can be satisfied with the outcomes. For instance, when we are faced with many options, we should break them into smaller groups and choose the best options from each of the smaller groups to avoid considering everything simultaneously.
To illustrate this technique with the jam/jelly example, we can lump the jams into categories, such as (a) jams with seeds (b) jams without seeds (c) jams with added sugar (d) jams with natural sugar, etc. This type of decision making, or “tournament-style,” was dubbed most effective in reducing the anxiety producing effects of “choice overload” in the recent MIT study “Reducing Choice Overload without Reducing Choices."
In addition to categorizing our options, we should learn how to differentiate between important choices so that we can accurately designate the time and energy suitable for the particular decision. For example, purchasing a home should take a lot more time, effort, and energy than deciding what jam to purchase. Anxiety occurs when we misappropriate time to choices that aren't very important in the grand scheme of life.
In order to find clarity and simplicity in a society of abundance, we must learn to reduce the burden of choice. This is essential in finding satisfaction with each choice - big or small - that we make. When we limit ourselves, we can devote more of our resources to the real business of living our lives. In this way, we can truly affirm our personal responsibility, our individuality, and our autonomy. When we unburden ourselves by choice, we can truly be free.