Curing Your Restlessness: Limiting Your Choices

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 20, 2009 · 40 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

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A few weeks ago, we talked about a problem plaguing many men these days, modern neurasthenia, a feeling of anxiousness or restlessness. In this follow-up, we’ll delve deeper into what is causing this restlessness and how it can be cured.

Back in our grandfathers’ day, there weren’t as many choices about what do with one’s life. And in our great-grandfathers time, there were even fewer choices. You might take over the family farm or family business or choose to pursue one of the trades.

These days we’re faced with a veritable onslaught of choices. What college should we go to? Public or private? Which of dozens of majors should we choose? Should we go to grad school or law school? What law school should we choose?

And besides the myriad of life choices we must make, we are bombarded each day with the necessity of making an endless stream of little mundane decisions. We stand in the cereal aisle of the grocery store as shelves and shelves of different ways to eat corn and wheat stretch as far as the eye can see in either direction. The web gives us millions of different sites to read. Whereas our grandfathers had 5 channels on the TV to watch, we have 850.

On the face of it, more choices are an unmitigated good thing. Americans especially prize having as many choices as possible. Before the turn of the 19th century, freedom was defined as self-sufficiency, the freedom to own your own land and tools, and eke out a living with your own hands. As consumerism became a dominate force in the culture, freedom was redefined to mean the freedom to choose, to choose between different items and lifestyles, to choose things we believed fit out tastes and personality more than others. This was the beginning of defining ourselves by what we buy, instead of who we are and what we do, but that is another discussion for another day.

Suffice it to say that for the last century our concepts of choice and freedom have been inextricably connected. Smarting from Russia having drawn first blood in the space race by launching Sputnik, Kruschev and Nixon held their famous “Kitchen Debate,” in which Nixon argued for the superiority of the American way of life by pointing to the number and superiority of our goods and appliances-Pepsi and cake mixes, dishwashers and lawnmowers, TV dinners and lipstick.

But is so much choice always the best thing for us? The happiness of Americans has slowly fallen over the past decades and currently 1 out of 10 of us are taking anti-depressants. If more choices equaled more happiness, we’d all be blissed out right now. But we’re not.

Now make no mistake about it-choice is great. It lets us select what we value and express our personalities. Choices give us autonomy and the opportunity to pursue our personal desires and dreams. They allow us to exert control over our lives and avoid feeling helpless. Choices give us the chance to create our own destiny, and they are essential to our psychological well-being.

But there’s a point of diminishing returns, a point where instead of mitigating a sense of helplessness and apathy, they actually increase it. Only 9% of people polled in 1966 agreed with the statement, “I feel left out of things going on around me.” In 1986, 37% of people felt that way. I imagine the number is even higher today. What’s going on?

How Choice Can Be Demotivating

In a high end grocery store, tables offered customers a chance to sample either 24 or 6 different jams. Shoppers were offered a dollar off coupon if they bought a jar. The table with 24 jams attracted a bigger crowd than the 6 jams table, but people ended up tasting about the same number of jams at each. The big difference was in how many of the samplers were converted into customers; only 3% of people at the 24 jams table bought a jar, while 30% of the samplers at the 6 jar table bought a jar.

What’s going on here? Why did increasing the number of choices actually decrease people’s ability to make a decision?

Haunted by Opportunity Costs

Economists use the term “opportunity costs” to describe the things a person misses out on when they choose one path or item over another. If you’re choosing between going to the movies and going to a baseball game, and you choose the latter, your opportunity cost is the movie that you won’t get to see. While strict economic theory says that we should only consider the opportunity costs associated with the next best choice, the reality is that each choice has features that could put it on top, depending on the criteria on which you are ranking them. And we end up feeling the opportunity costs not just from the next best choice, but from all the choices that we consider. Thus the more options we are faced with, the more opportunity costs we have to accept, and the more unhappy and restless we become.

As we’ve said, choices are good, but there’s comes a point of diminishing returns. And that point is reached when the opportunity costs become so great that you cannot enjoy the choice that you make. The accompanying trade-offs haunt you and rob you of taking satisfaction in your chosen course. Or, as happened to the jam samplers, just the idea of making so many trade-offs is enough to dissuade you from making a choice at all. For on the one hand, you miss out on a particular jar of jam, but on the other, you don’t have to think about all the other jams you passed up. You see an attractive choice, but the other choices also have attractive qualities too, which negates the attractiveness of the first choice. That choice no longer seems to be very special and thus ceases to feel worth pursuing.

Now the jam is a trivial matter, but the point carries over to the bigger choices we have to make. There are so many different options that we’re tempted to check-out and not choose anything at all in order to avoid dealing with the opportunity costs of our decisions. We get stuck at the jam table of life, wanting to choose something but unwilling to shut any other choices out, and totally paralyzed by our inertia. And we’re anxious, because other people are coming up and buying the jam and will there even be any jam when we want some? But damnit if we can’t move, and oh no, that person just took some more jam!

The Cycle of Restlessness

Unwilling to deal with potential trade-offs, many men decide the best course is not to choose at all, with the idea that keeping as many options open as possible offers the most freedom and the most happiness. But as intuitive as that might seem, studies show that it just doesn’t work that way. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says:

“What could create larger opportunity costs than choosing one mate and losing the chance to enjoy all the attractive features of other potential spouses? People also stay in their jobs less than half as long, on average, as they did a generation ago. Whereas delaying marriage and avoiding commitment to a particular job would seem to promote self-discovery, this freedom and self-exploration seems to leave many people feeling more lost than found.”

Men get caught up in what I will call the cycle of restlessness. Confronted with the numerous choices of life, men feel restless and believe that the cure to the problem is more freedom and choices. Thus they detach themselves from their commitments. But this only creates more choices in their life, which makes them feel more restless and the cycle continues.

Breaking the Cycle: Making Commitments

Studies have shown that doing things like getting married, being close to one’s family, having good friends, and being involved in religious communities are all correlated with a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction. Now, it’s impossible to say that these commitments caused the happiness, but it’s still interesting to note that these things, which limit some of your choices and freedom, are connected with greater, not lesser happiness.

Think about electricity. It’s a nebulous force that cannot be seen with the human eye. It needs a cord, a conduit for it to be useful and power our lives. Happiness is the same way; without any constraints, any avenues for it to travel to us, it remains a hazy cloud, all around us but frustratingly ungraspable.

A monk once took his students for a walk along a river. First he showed them a place where the banks of the river were very far apart. Here the water ran slow and stagnant. Then he took him to a place where the banks were much closer together. Here the water ran fast and clear.

While leaving every possible door open in our lives may seem to promise the most happiness, placing some constraints on our choices can actually increase the amount of pleasure and satisfaction in our lives.

Limiting Our Choices

But what does this mean? Should we marry the first girl that bats her eyes at us and stay at any job no matter how mind numbing it is?

Of course not. Making commitments willy nilly, simply in the hopes of having less choices, will make you less happy, not more. Rather, it means that we need to redirect the energies we waste flitting from possibility to possibility, into understanding what we really want in life and the trade-offs we are willing to make.

In a time where many things, from our lattes to our RSS feeds, can be exactly tailored to our personal desires, many of us make the subconscious leap to believing that it’s possible for everything in life to exactly align with our tastes. Thus, we add to the bevy of already existing choices, another, albeit false one. We combine all the desirable qualities we can think of into one “perfect” possibility, one that will involve no trade-offs whatsoever, and we then go from college to college, woman to woman, and job to job, searching for this perfect choice to materialize.

But life is not a Starbucks. Every choice has at least a few trade-offs. If you want more time, then you’ll probably get less pay. If you want to be an entrepreneur, then you’ll have to give up security. If you want to marry a pious, intelligent woman, she probably won’t also be a hot runway model who is a freak in the bedroom.

The trick to curing your restlessness is to figure out which trade-offs you’re willing to accept and what things you are unwilling to compromise on. You can then greatly narrow the options to pursue. If being the same religion as your future wife is a deal breaker, you’ve just cut out a wide swath of the population. If you also cannot be married to a spendthrift, then more choices can be eliminated. Is having a sense of humor required? Alright, now you have a better idea of who to date and don’t have to pursue every random girl who you think is cute.

Dating 30 women and applying to 15 colleges may seem like the best way to find what’s best for you, but remember, it will backfire in the end. You’ve simply amplified the opportunity costs and set yourself up for regret and “what ifs” when you’re finally forced to make a choice. Define your core values, understand what you really want out of life, and then focus only on the choices that fit those parameters. And if you like Capt’n Crunch, stick with it.

Source: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gustavo September 20, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Nice article, I was needing that.
It is not easy to focus, maybe because we are trained to pursue material goods since we are young.

2 James September 20, 2009 at 10:35 pm

I hope I do not come across as pedantic in saying this, but as it is one of the basics of economics and one of the most difficult things for people studying economics (myself included) to understand, I feel compelled to mention that opportunity cost is not the summation of all foregone opportunities of a choice. Rather, it is limited to the value of the next best alternative. Were it not so limited, in many cases, the opportunity cost would be infinite (eg, there are infinite things that could be done with your time instead of going to a baseball game, not just attending a concert, play, or movie). There are times when the next best alternative can be multiple alternatives, but this is only when each of the alternatives is not mutually exclusive. In the baseball game example, since it is impossible to also attend the play and the movie and the concert simultaneously, the choices are mutually exclusive, at least according to the assumption that each is a one-time-only event. If this assumption is relaxed, perhaps to allow for attending both the concert and the play but not the movie as an alternative, the opportunity cost would increase to include either (1) the foregone concert and play or (2) the movie, depending on which is considered the next best alternative. All three, however, would not be included.

All of that being said, I agree wholeheartedly with this article. While I am not likely to limit my choices explicitly, I do recognize that excessive choice can make life more difficult than it needs to be. Just as everybody does not need to be doing all the work on their car or writing all of their own software or baking all of their own bread (attempting to do all of your work yourself leads to less work being done overall – but that’s another economic discussion), there are areas of our lives where choice is helpful (eg, a skater being able to choose their own board and trucks or a baseball player having a wide assortment of bats and gloves from which to choose) and there are areas where a limited selection can lead to a better life.

3 Matthew September 20, 2009 at 10:54 pm

I really enjoyed the article, since I can be quite indecisive at times. I’ve realized that ‘freedom’ doesn’t mean having a million choices before you, it means actually making a choice. For instance, if you go out and buy a brand new iPod, then you aren’t enjoying your iPod by sitting around and staring at it. You enjoy it by actually using it for what it was intended for, listening to music, watching videos, etc. In the same way, unless you take advantage of your freedom of choice, than you aren’t truly being free. What’s the difference between a man with no choices, and a man who has the world before him, but makes no choice?

4 Rodney Hampton September 20, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Great article. I try to limit myself to 3 choices. Cutting the list down to 3 is the hard part. Deciding after that is a breeze.

5 Elliot Ness September 20, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Thanks for the post. Be a man, make the decision and don’t look back.

6 Alex W. September 20, 2009 at 11:32 pm

A very good article. This is a real and prevalent problem in this country and the number of young men falling into indecisive lifestyles in America is staggering and frightening. I agree with and respect those who wish to “leave their options open,” but when that mantra rules their life and at the end of the day they find themselves at the end of every list, well, we must all learn from that.
The economics of all this is great, too. I am actually taking an intro to econ class now in school and we just finished covering opportunity cost. I also think that the law of demand applies here. As the price (or in this case the commitment) increases, then the demand to buy (or choose) goes down. Result: a lazy generation who would rather live check to check then commit and make something happen for themselves.
I really took a lot from this article, I hope the rest of you gentlemen do as well.

7 Brett McKay September 20, 2009 at 11:45 pm

@James-

You are quite right. You know I read that in my research but then got caught up in the larger point I was trying to make as I was writing. The point actually originates from Dr. Schwartz, who argued that while it makes sense from an economic theory standpoint to only take into consideration the opportunity costs of the next best choice, all the passed on choices can psychologically affect us. Anyway, I took out my 2nd example and tried to clarify. I am using the term a little loosely here in service of the larger point. I hope economists can forgive me. Thanks for the comment.

8 John September 21, 2009 at 1:31 am

I think this paragraph nails it:

“On the face of it, more choices are an unmitigated good thing. Americans especially prize having as many choices as possible. Before the turn of the 19th century, freedom was defined as self-sufficiency, the freedom to own your own land and tools, and eke out a living with your own hands. As consumerism became a dominate force in the culture, freedom was redefined to mean the freedom to choose, to choose between different items and lifestyles, to choose things we believed fit out tastes and personality more than others. This was the beginning of defining ourselves by what we buy, instead of who we are and what we do, but that is another discussion for another day.”

I was in college towards the end of the Cold War. I had a friend originally from the Soviet Union. He said Americans have no idea what freedom is and that we squandered it on trivial matters. I don’t think I completely understood what he meant, but today I agree with him. We could be ruled by the People’s Republic of China tomorrow and most Americans wouldn’t even notice. As long as Starbucks is open and their iPhones work, who cares if we’re free.

9 K.C. September 21, 2009 at 5:18 am

Hot dang I love this site. Every day I come here, checking to see if there is a new article and reading it, or if there isn’t I spend quite a while re-reading favorites or digging through and reading ones from way before I found AOM. Always a great read either way.

Brett, this was a great article, looking back over the past few months I can say I whole-heartedly agree with what you said about men who are married, good family and friend relationships, etc. being happier. I am lucky enough to have wonderful relationships with majority of my family and all of my friends, not married yet (just turned 21 so), but I have always been a bit happier. I couldn’t imagine not having the “rules” as far as options go without family and friends limiting it down a little.

What I’m trying to say is I always enjoy your writings, and this site is just spot on, on being a better man and I know I will be a better one and a better father because of it.

Thanks,

K.C.

10 OLUATA OLUWAGBENGA DARE September 21, 2009 at 6:25 am

This is awesome!!! Where on earth did this come from….This is a solution of all time..My God…I am speechless.God bless you guys real good…..WOW!!!

11 Terri September 21, 2009 at 8:07 am

Though a married man is legally innocent, he will automatically lose his children, eighteen (18) years of income, and half his stuff, among other things. Divorce decision is unilateral (one decides) and no fault (no reason needed).

The math: the USA has one of the highest divorce rates in the world of about 180 countries – about 55%. Women initiate about 85% of divorces, about 90% if they have a college degree.

Marriage is important, and the benefits many, but be aware of consequences of an USA wedding against the father/husband.

12 Joseph Lenze September 21, 2009 at 8:40 am

Another great article!!!

13 Ryan September 21, 2009 at 8:47 am

Terri: prenup

Brett: thanks a lot for that mate. It’s something i’ve been thinking for a while, but until now have not been able to articulate. much appreciated!

14 Oliver Ruehl September 21, 2009 at 8:53 am

“Stick with it.”

That’s the essence what really makes my life simpler.

My 3 core values:

1) Family.
2) A simple life.
3) Create something and be passionate about it. In my case: Photography.

Another thing I stick to is this: When you’re at a restaurant don’t change your mind about your orders all the time. After the meal you will think: “Damn! I wish I’d taken the first thing I thought of!”. Happens all the time ;-)

Kind regards and keep up the good work
Oliver

15 Lowri September 21, 2009 at 9:49 am

Not just good advice for men but for everyone. Sobering points to ponder, is more REALLY more? I think not!

16 tc909 September 21, 2009 at 9:51 am

Unfortunately, while I have even known these things intuitively before, it’s never been easy for me to do them! It’s one thing to say “Limit your choices, make a decision, stick with it, and be happy!” but actually doing that is very difficult (for me anyway). I’m always looking back, or worse, comparing myself to others and what they have done. “So & so wrote all these songs by the time he was 30, and I’m 40 and haven’t written one!” It’s a tough thing to overcome, but I appreciate this site and these articles.

17 Luis Q September 21, 2009 at 11:27 am

Really good article. Its always nice to check my inbox and read one of this article’s site.

Thanks!

18 Ray September 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm

The Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer newspaper ran an editorial on today’s Opinion page about how too many choices in their lives are also making _women_ less happy. “With More Choices, Women Unhappier” makes the point that “Women have lives that become increasingly empty. They’re doing more and feeling less.” I get the sense that many men and women are desperately looking for ways to simplify their lives, cut back on unnecessary media exposure, and get back to what’s really important in life in order to recapture the happiness and satisfaction of earlier times. I think of my own grandparents, puttering in their yards and vegetable plots, enjoying a ballgame or show (on the radio!), cooking simple but wholesome foods, living in the same small houses for their entire married lives, playing with the grandkids… they had no internet, supermarkets, fast food “restaurants,” or instant anything. Life was slow and deliberate and took some effort. They were the happiest people I ever met.

19 Christopher Hamilton September 21, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Interesting article, but I think that the focus on “sticking with it” forgets that the CRITERIA that a man uses for making his choices in life also evolve as he grows. A man’s choices will change over time, because the man himself (if he is open, observant, and reflective) grows and changes over time as well.

One of my favorite quotes is from Matthew Arnold: “Resolve to be thyself: and know, that he who finds himself, loses his misery.” Choices tend to be easier when a man knows who he really is and what he really finds important. But who I am now is different from who I was in college, in my first job, etc. The article, in fact, makes an excellent argument for CONTINUAL self-evaluation and reflection.

I believe the abundance of choices in modern-day America allows a man, if he is so inclined, to reexamine his choices and consider what may be good to change. I don’t think this paralyzes a man, but rather allows to expand his perspective and keeps him from ossifying into a self-image that doesn’t allow for change. “Sticking with it” is a good lesson for any man looking to build character and experience. But at the same time, I would argue that you have to be sure what you’re sticking with is really beneficial for who you really are today. Would you want to be shackled by the worldview and choice criteria you had in high school or college? Probably not, and that’s probably a good thing too.

Another quibble, I just don’t buy the author’s link of individual choices and the statistics regarding length of employment. There are dozens of factors influencing reduced longevity in a job, but the most significant are the cultural changes of the population (more mobile workforce, increased competition for qualified employees in several industrial sectors leads to more attractive job offers, etc.) and the devastating impact that corporate behavior (from the 1990s to the present day) have had on employee loyalty. In an era where work can be outsourced to other companies, employee pension plans can be annihilated by individual greed or corporate mismanagement, and companies cut employees by the thousands, where is the motivation for a man to stay loyal to ONE company? Certainly, experience can be gained within an organization, but most people living through the last two decades of the 20th century know full well that companies never really show loyalty to their people (unless they’re in the upper leadership of the company). That’s not a factor of our choices, sport. That’s a factor of corporate behavior, economics, and (in the case of job-hoppers) a rational reading of the modern American marketplace. In the case of modern America, “sticking with” one job is a recipe for career and financial suicide, and many people are making the choice to not make themselves so vulnerable.

20 Sam Winters September 21, 2009 at 2:12 pm

In a really strange coincidence, I watched a TED talk by Barry Schwartz this morning about this very topic.

http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

21 Stuart September 21, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I don’t think the number of choices neccesarily has anything to do with it. Of course you will be unhappy if you are in a sea of choices without a rudder. Figure out what you want, what your goals are, what your values are. The choices to make after that will be obvious.

I think even back in the “old days” when choices were limited, people didn’t know their own wants, goals, and values. The limitation of choices sort of imposed a wants/goal/value system on them, for them. Our greater choices today amplify the fact that many of us have no clue what we are doing, what we want, or what our personal values are. Many of us, therefore, have no idea what to choose.

It’s not the number of choices, it’s that many people don’t have a rudder, a list of goals and values to guide their choices.

22 Sean G September 21, 2009 at 5:09 pm

One reason I like this site so much—-it has plenty I “agree” with, plenty that I don’t agree with—-but mostly, it is food for thought. It’s a great conversation.

It has inspired me to start sketching out my own “manning up” site—and I hope to link to AOM, when I have something live.

Cheers.

23 procrastinhobo September 21, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Awesome post! Really enjoyed it. Never saw too many choices itself having an opportunity cost. Thanks!

24 Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin September 21, 2009 at 10:04 pm

More of a transaction cost than an opportunity cost, but a cost nonetheless.

25 no one important September 21, 2009 at 10:13 pm

This post was incredibly helpful to me. I have been going through this without having realized it until now. I will definitely be checking out the book. I knew about trade-offs and opportunity costs, but always thought it was for one of two choices, not all of them.

26 Michael September 21, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Demotivating? Huh?

27 Brett McKay September 22, 2009 at 12:36 am

@Michael-

Yes demotivating, something that saps your motivation. That is the name of the series of studies which included the jam experiment. “When Choice is Demotivating.”

http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/articles/Choice_is_Demotivating.pdf

28 Jeremy M September 22, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Another issue which might be related in modern life is that many things are after your attention. It seems like it is “environmentally-induced ADD.” All the multi-tasking and changing attention dozens of times a minute can’t be good for the soul. Actually, I tried something called a “media fast.” Basically, no TV, internet, books, magazines, texting, etc. for about a week (or whatever time period). Wow, did I get a lot a stuff done (that I had been putting off). Basically, there was nothing to help me procrastinate. Also, it helped with focusing and getting into “flow” with what I was working on at the moment. Also, by the end of the experiment, i felt more clarity on what I wanted to do. I’m getting that environmentally-induced ADD feeling again, so I will do it again in the near future but maybe for a longer period like a month.

29 cal September 22, 2009 at 7:28 pm

oh, the irony: i was debating for a minute or two to read this article or another on espn.com during a break from work. the choices are so vast. i’m glad i chose this one.

i’ve often thought about this silently to myself and am glad that someone wrote about it. the material on chosing the girl to date is right on; finding (as Ludacris says) a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets is difficult. Narrowing it down to the most desired quality, however, is easier and yields more happiness in my view.

30 Phil September 23, 2009 at 9:50 am

I thought I was the only one who felt overwhelmed by endless choices.

In my case, its music. I’ve have so much music that it can be difficult to devote the time to get to know it all. Groan. The more crap you own, the more it owns you.

31 Kitty September 25, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I really like your site, AND your choices of movies in a lot of cases. LOL

I want to thank you for this article. I’ve seen the same thing in my own life and I think this article would be just as great in Woman’s Day or Family Circle as it is in a men’s site. thanks so much. I Facebooked it. Kitty

32 Tom Harbold September 25, 2009 at 4:43 pm

I can vouch for accuracy of this assessment, at least in my personal life. The more choices I am faced with, the greater the likelihood I will choose “none of the above.” Materially, that can sometimes be beneficial! As my mom used to say, “it’s amazing the number of things we can live without.” But in terms of charting the course of one’s life, it can result in status quo and stagnation, where change might ideally be in order. And yes, holding out for the (largely mythical) “ideal” choice can result in passing up on commitments which, if once made, might have proven rewarding. So, yes, this is an area of my life in which improvement is called for. I’m working on it!

33 mjukr October 2, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Thanks so much for writing these entries. Very enlightening, and really hits close to home.

34 Rod October 8, 2009 at 8:08 am

Outstanding

35 Spencer October 13, 2009 at 3:51 am

Thanks for this article. I needed this.

36 Matthew Thomas October 14, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Great article, very poignant in these times with the seemingly limitless amount of choices one has. Everyday it gets easier to become more indecisive. Using this article, I will resist!

37 Caroline November 21, 2009 at 9:21 am

Awesome. I always feel like I’m in limbo with so many ideas floating around, but I should just narrow it down and get on with life.

38 Core March 27, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I liked this article… it described how I am feeling right now. Although I honestly couldn’t put words too it till I read this article.

39 choicefail January 21, 2013 at 4:59 pm

So while starting to read this article, there was a ad on the right hand side for custom shirts, where you get to pick all sorts of options. There were options I didn’t even knew existed.

So much choice, so little time.

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