I prefer having choices to make over not having the option to choose how I spend my time. And yet, just like any medication you might take, the freedom to choose brings with it some potentially dangerous side effects. I’d like you to think about 3 and then consider a couple of modifications about how you make choices.
Consider the differences between choosing a mate today versus 50 years ago. According to Daniel Jones (listen at the 17 minute mark), in previous generations people chose mates from close proximity–from their block, building, or neighborhood. Now, we have endless choices if we are willing to use the Internet. Consider the differences in choosing professions. In the past, your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. Now, not only can you pursue any career, you have to choose from endless post-secondary educational schools on your way to that career.
How can having choices/options lead to negative consequences?
- Dissatisfied. You are always wondering if there is something better out there. Again, consider Daniel Jones as he discusses online dating sites,
“…it turns you into a flaky person who is always looking for something better, that can become a kind of mania…if you have a moment of boredom, you think there are 12 more possibilities in your inbox…”
Later in the same interview, Jones tells us that the issue of today is “not labeling relationships. Based on his college student interviews, many young people today are loathe to identify someone as their partner or lover. They tend to resist labeling someone as a boy or girlfriend. The failure to accept normal labels not only lead to potential of chronic dissatisfaction but also confusion–if you don’t know when a relationship begins, ends or what it is founded upon. It would seem that commitment to a relationship would suffer if it never is named as such.
Dissatisfaction leads to comparing self against others and both lead to depression.
- Anxious. Coupled with the tendency towards feeling dissatisfied with life, more choices lead many to anxiety. What if I made the wrong decision? What if the next person I meet would make a better spouse? What if I’m missing out on something important? Continual choice and/or rumination over choices increases the sense of importance for the choices we have.
Anxiety leads to chronic stress and chronic stress begins to break down our immune system.
- Fatigued (cognitive and emotional). We find ways to simplify life. A colleague of mine has a system to know what to wear each day so as to avoid the “What am I going to wear today” question. We (try to) put our keys in the same place to avoid the stress of looking for them every time we leave the house. When we live with too many open choices and options, we burn more glucose and our brains become less efficient. We numb our feelings or we become edgy.
Fatigue leads to poor decision-making (impulsive, reactive, unthinking). This is why we blow diets more at 10 pm than we do at 9 am. This is why those with addictions are more likely to use later in the day than early in the morning. When we are emotionally and cognitively fatigued, we are prone to feel greater anxiety and dissatisfaction. The “gift” of choice continues to give.
Can We Do Anything About This?
Now, rest assured that I am not advocating for life to return to a place of no choice (arranged marriage, one career path, etc.). Choice has enabled me to learn about myself and given me many wonderful experiences that as a boy growing up in Vermont I never imagined. But are there ways we can minimize the common negative consequences of too many choices?
- Examine your view of God’s will. I meet many people who fear making a choice God does not want them to make. They fear they will somehow end up on plan B of life as punishment from God. While there are many very black and white decisions (should I cheat on my taxes? Is it okay to kill my annoying neighbor?) most decisions are not that clear. What if most of your decisions are neither right nor wrong? Whether you go to university A or B, marry person A or B is less of concern for God than we might think. Typically God seems more interested in our motives than some of our daily choices. Consider seeing God’s will as guardrails on a road rather than a pinpoint decision.
- Limit your decision-making time. It can be a habit of some to mull over future decisions long before the decision needs to be made. Do you find yourself worrying about the challenges of next week? While it might seem wise to think through your decisions in a thorough way, anxious rumination is not helpful. Limit when you think about big ticket future decisions. For example, if you are considering a career change, set a specific time during the week to search out available options. Then, when you find your mind mulling over options outside that set time, you can say to yourself, “I’m going to think about that during the scheduled time, not now!” When you do make a decision, use the same technique to limit when you review/evaluate that decision, thereby limiting time for “what ifs.”
- Challenge post decision “if only” regrets. I made a major career decision 17 years ago. I chose to become a seminary professor over an Ivy League appointment. For the first few months at Biblical Seminary I found myself wondering if I had made the right choice. I imagine this was the result of financial struggles (the other job paid double) and the overwhelming stress of creating grad courses from scratch (the other job was something I had ample experience to do). So, I could easily see that I chose the harder job for less pay. That became the truth I believed for a bit. But, the real truth is that I chose a job that had immense freedom and opportunity for growth. I would not have been able to travel the world as I do now. Of course, I couldn’t know all that then. So, work to challenge your assumptions about the future. Yes, like me, you will grieve when doors close. But remember, God is at work in providing a future for you, even in tough locations and times.