The Paradox of Choice


This month I want to thank Dr. Sara Rosenquist for directing me to a great Ted Talk, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz. While we humans generally love to have many choices, the paradox is that such a vast array of choices can lead to unhappiness with whatever we ultimately choose. Schwartz says, “Choice has made us not freer, but more paralyzed. Not happier, but more dissatisfied.”

I know for myself, there are SO many choices of things to do! It is mind boggling! I’m often lamenting that I missed out on this music festival or that craft fair or that I haven’t hiked that trail yet or seen the new movie or the holidays are coming and I haven’t started making homemade gifts, or there is a 5K next weekend, or I haven’t talked to my college roommate in months, or what about learning French, and you know I never took a Physics class, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. It can be overwhelming and I used to regret all the things I did not get to do because I was occupied with something else. I’ve gotten better at letting go of those missed opportunities. For example, it occurred to me that I will NEVER win a Heisman trophy or a Nobel Prize or go to Antarctica. I’m now at peace with this realization! BTW, my husband, knowing me as he does, asked if I knew what a Heisman trophy was 😊!!!     

The problem is “opportunity cost” which is the benefit that a person could have received, but gave up, to take another course of action. So, when I choose butter pecan ice cream, I’m not choosing chocolate or strawberry.  When I choose one pair of pants, there is a vast array of others I did not choose and which might have, at least In my mind, produced even greater happiness.

The reader is saying, “So What? Who cares if you choose butter pecan or boot cut jeans?” And, sure enough, most of us don’t lament these little everyday choices.  But what about choosing a career or a mate? Those choices have long-range repercussions, don’t they? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

Another body of research was presented by Dan Gilbert in which he asked the question, “a year after the fact, who is happier, the individual who won the lottery or the person who lost the use of his or her legs?” Of course, we all predict that the lottery winner would be much happier. In fact, on average, the lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy a year later.  Gilbert says we “synthesize” our happiness. Happiness has very little to do with our outward circumstances. I’ve heard this for many years and still find it fascinating!

How does all this research relate to dating and relationships?

  • We make our own happiness. Period. We make our own unhappiness too. Trust me, I know.

  • We can be happy in multiple different circumstances. There is no Mr. or Ms. Perfect for whom you need to waste your life searching. Your partner doesn’t have to check all your boxes for you to be content with your relationship.

  • We need to be “present” in life. Yes, life is full of choices, and we can’t have EVERY experience or date EVERY person on the planet. Nonetheless, we can make choices and participate fully in life. We can stop ruminating about the “road not taken.” Only then can we really learn about ourselves and about others and grow.

For folks who want a “deep dive” into being fully present, I encourage you to read Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now. It is very thought provoking. I can’t do it justice in writing about it here except to say that it has been profoundly helpful to me in my own life as I strive to be aware, alive and compassionate.  


Until next month!!

Peace, Love and Joy.

-Dr. Kate Freiman-Fox