Blog » Decisions that matter (and those that don't)
I've been thinking recently about choices and how they affect happiness. Choices require decisions, and decisions require effort and come at a cost. In the 21st century we have choices unlike any preceding generation. We demand choices in every aspect of our lives, and I'm starting to wonder whether it makes us any happier. In fact, I wonder if it makes us happier at all.
It wasn't long ago that deciding what to watch on TV was a choice between TV1, TV2 and TV3. These days we can choose between 25+ Freeview channels, 80+ SkyTV channels and thousands and thousands of on-demand movies and TV shows via iTunes. Want to read a book? Forget your bookshelf or even a library, fire up your Kindle and choose from any book ever written. Want to buy a TV? Sure - what brand? What size? LCD or LED? Or how about Plasma? Want to buy a car? OK, what make? Model? What colour? How big do you want the engine? Manual or auto? Leather or half-leather? Red stiching or orange?
But of course it's not just the trivial things. We now have choice over what to study (and where), who to marry (and when), where to work (and for how long) and what religion to follow (if at all). We even have a choice over the shape of our bodies (plastic surgery) and how long we're going to live (medical insurance and medicines). It wasn't long ago that these decisions were effectively made for us. The choices were few, if at all.
The thing about choices, is that if you take them seriously, they take real effort to make. Making the "wrong choice" could be a disaster! What if I start a business before finishing my degree and it fails and I'm 30 and I have no job and no career options? What if I study overseas but get over there and make no friends and return home with a huge debt and no body remembers me? What if I marry my girlfriend/boyfriend and he/she leaves me or worse yet, I find someone "better"? What if I accept that job or this job? Where will that lead me? What doors will that open (or close)? What if I leave my religion and my family disowns me? What if I don't? What if I come out as gay and I lose my friends or my job? What if I don't? The anxiety caused by being confronted by these choices can be overwhelming for many people. And are we any happier for making them? We have created a society and lifestyles that demand choices in everything, and in doing so has created a mental burden on everyone who chooses to take them seriously (and you should).
The people I know who I consider to be the most successful in life (i.e. living their "best lives" and being happy most of the time) cope with choices by deciding which decisions matter, and which don't. To put it another way: they don't sweat the small stuff. The are totally indecisive in some (unimportant) aspects of their lives. The people who say "I'll have what he's having" when ordering breakfast, but debate for weeks or months which school to send their children to or which political party to vote for. The people who couldn't care less which colour (or brand) t-shirt to wear, what movie to watch on TV or whether we drive or walk to the shops, but who think deeply about dating the right person, deciding the best time to have children or perusing the most rewarding career.
If you agonoize over every choice you'll turn into a stress ball. Trust me - I know. And while many of the problems and anxieties caused by "choice anxiety" could be described as "first world problems" they have a very real effect on people's happiness and should therefore be taken seriously (after all, the pursuit of happiness is shared by everyone regardless of their place in history or the size of their bank balance).
When confronted with a plethora of choices, best to focus on the decisions that matter. Ignore the rest.