Happiness and Choice

Some recent evidence suggests that people may be happier when they have fewer choices. Barry Schwartz (http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html) in a recent TED Talk discusses the “paradox” of choice in the Western culture. While we tout our personal freedoms as a trait to be emulated in the world, it is something that, according to Schwartz, actually “paralyzes” us. We often end up regretting our choices and always looking for ways to maximize our happiness without ever being satisfied with the choices we do make. Additionally, he argues that often we are not well equipped to be making complex decisions at all. Dan Gilbert (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html), in his TED Talk, discusses a similar topic and presents research that supports his theories. In his talk, he states that, after one year, research shows that a paraplegic and a lottery winner are about the same level of happiness. He expounds on this point and concludes that human beings can be truly happy in extraordinary circumstances as an adaptive measure.

My parents often reminisce about their childhood and how they were happy with just one toy when they were kids and could not believe the overabundance of “stuff” that children have in modern day America. They also look at me incredulously when I ask them if they were “happy” with some of the conditions in which they grew up and respond: “We did not have a choice” implying, of course, that they were happy because they had no other option.

Maybe, then, the fact that we can be happy in almost any situation is more a tribute to the incredible adaptive nature of man than it does to the source of happiness. A person’s ability to cope in even the worst situation is important for survival, even if their situation was dire or hopeless. However, this does not mean that the same person would not be happier if their circumstances were different. Many women may also convince themselves they are happy in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, but does that mean that they should stay in this situation? Conversely, we can observe people who have many choices in life and are given material and other comforts, and are still unhappy.

So, then, what is the line between the amount of choice for which all human beings should hold as a minimum standard, and the superfluous amount of choice that, as Schwartz aptly describes, paralyzes us? If we romanticize the simplicity and correlating happiness with which people live their lives in different times and places, we also have to confront difficult questions about how many times, people coped with oppressive situations by today’s standards because they had no other option.

Therefore, is the paraplegic happy because he has no other choice? If so, what does that imply for other people’s happiness? Further, how much resources should we, as a society, allocate to “helping” others in circumstances that we assume brings about unhappiness? For example, if the paraplegic is as happy as the lottery winner after one year, does it then become unethical to decrease spending in medical technology that may enhance the paraplegic’s ability to use arms, legs, etc?

As technology continues to expand and as we lead increasingly complex lives, we will continuously have to make difficult choices in our lives. This is usually seen as the hallmark of a progressive society. More choices imply greater personal freedoms and advancements in science, education, and technology. However, this comes at a price- the risk of complicating our lives and never being satisfied, which can lead to greater unhappiness. There is a line between choices being limited to an intolerable threshold and having too many choices which essentially “paralyze” us. However, this line is not clear and something we have to figure out not only on a personal level, but also on a societal level.

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About The Author

Hanieh Razzaghi

Hanieh Razzaghi was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old. She grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Penn State University where she received a Bachelors Degree in Biobehavioral Health. She then went on to receive a Masters in Public Health at Yale University. Most of her work since graduation has been focused on research related to health care in the United States. Hanieh is currently a stay-at-home mom to her daughter recently born in November of 2009 and her research and blogging interests have expanded to include child health and development. She works part-time from home as a Research Project Manager and she is also studying to become a birth educator and breastfeeding counselor.

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11 2011

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  1. 1

    Thank you for this very true and informative post!

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