November 26, 2006    PhilosophyEast vs. West

Freedom of Choice Is Overrated

Coming from Japan, the abundance of choice offered in America has always frustrated me, not because I don’t like having choices, but because many of them are meaningless for me. For instance, a typical diner in New York offers hundreds of items on the menu, but none of them are particularly good. Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer a limited number of items, but make them really well? Unfortunately the answer appears to be no. In this country where the concept of individualism is almost sacred, having choice is unequivocally considered as a good thing. No one even questions it, except for a few theorists like Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice”.

On the surface, when you walk around in Japan, you might see as many choices as you see in the US, but you rarely see any choice for the sake of choice. Because of the multitude of options associated with it, it took me about 10 years to be able to order a sandwich in this country. Type of bread: white, whole wheat, 7-grain, pumpernickel, rye, etc.. Type of meat: turkey, roast beef, chicken, ham, pastrami, etc.. Type of cheese: American, cheddar, Swiss, Munster, etc.. And then you have optional things like tomato, lettuce, onion, mustard, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mayonnaise, etc.. Learning what each of these items is is no easy task for someone who came from a culture where cheese is just cheese. It was like playing a video game with many different levels; I would often give up before I could reach the end. And, most of the time, after all this trouble, I would get a mediocre sandwich. There are certainly many places that make excellent sandwiches in New York, but ironically those who make great sandwiches usually offer much less options. This is because they are real artists who could come up with a combination of ingredients that we amateurs could not even imagine. Professional chefs spend their lives thinking about how to make great food. If we want something beyond what we can make ourselves, it would only make sense that we let them decide what they think is good. This is the reason why many Japanese restaurants have an item on the menu called “Omakase”, which means you leave it up to the chef to decide what is the best and the freshest. It appears that the Americans seem to enjoy having control over what they are getting, more than they enjoy great food.

Choice for the sake of choice may be a pitfall unique to the American culture. In “The Paradox of Choice,” Schwartz describes the term coined by Robert Lane called “hedonic lag”: “a tendency of every culture to persist in valuing the qualities that made it distinctively great long after they have lost their hedonic yield.” Most good things in life have lines beyond which they are no longer productive or beneficial. In the US, an almost religious faith in the power of individuals to choose has reached the point of being counter-productive. It is about time we move on to something more salient and meaningful for our own times. In fact, the book depicts a grim future if we don’t.

The number of suicide per year is increasing. So is the number of people with clinical depression. Schwartz argues that the increase in the number of choices is creating unnecessary feelings of anxiety in us, and, in many cases, this is leading to clinical depression. This might sound far-fetched if we consider only mundane, everyday choices such as choosing a sandwich, a brand of cereal, or a holiday destination, but it becomes rather serious if we consider life-changing decisions like heath insurance and retirement plan. When there were no health insurance or retirement plans, family members, friends, and the people in our community helped each other to deal with misfortunes. Now because of the emphasis on independence, we feel we are on our own to take care of ourselves if anything bad were to happen. In order to make a choice, we now have to study and understand how all these things work. To understand how retirement plans work, one must understand the legal, financial, and tax implications of various plans. It also requires a significant degree of mathematical competence. It is rare to meet someone who has managed to make a fully informed decision. Such a person could in fact make a career out of it.

One might argue that it is still better than having no choice. It actually isn’t. As I described above, when health insurance and retirement plans did not exist, we had different systems to deal with our misfortunes. And, since we did not expect to be able to control our misfortunes in the way we expect today, we did not have to blame ourselves for them. We were able to accept misfortunes as part of life. Today, any minor misfortunes are our own faults (for not buying every available type of insurance). We can’t simply get over our misfortunes; we have to regret them.

In the book, Schwartz presents his theories on why the paradox of choice is making us feel miserable, and on how we can prevent it. He has practical suggestions like: “Choose when to choose,” “Make your decisions nonreversible,” “Practice an ‘attitude of gratitude,’” “Regret less,” “Control expectations,” “Curtail social comparison,” “Learn to love constraints,” and so on… Personally I do not believe that these strategies work. Like the multitude of diet schemes available today, they sound good and would work for a short period of time, but in the long run, they would not. I believe the fundamental issue is missing in his suggestions.

The worst American “hedonic lag” is not the freedom of choice, but “the pursuit of happiness” which is in the Declaration of Independence. If we watched nothing but Hollywood movies, one would get the impression that if we have any unhappy moments in our lives, there is something wrong with us, and we have problems to fix. In most Hollywood movies, those problems are fixed at the end, and the characters live happily ever after. We treat unhappiness as some sort of disease to eradicate forever. This is the main cause, I believe, of the growing number of suicide and clinical depression.

In the book, Schwartz states, “in Japan, per capita wealth has increased by a factor of five in the last forty years, again with no measurable increase in the level of individual happiness.” What he may not realize is that in the East, most people expect their lives to contain 50 percent happiness and 50 percent unhappiness. So, if you ask them to rate the degree of their own happiness in general terms, they would tend to give 5 out of 10, even if they are happy or miserable most of the time. They assume that whatever their situations are now will change sooner or later. In other words, they do not expect the degree of happiness to go up with their material wealth, at least not to the degree the Americans do.

If you read about the classic Chinese philosophy, I Ching, this becomes easier to understand. Life as explained by I Ching is a wave of upturns and downturns like a sine wave. It accepts constant change as part of life. In contrast, Westerners see life as a linear progression, something that should get better in time. Technological advancement, for instance, is viewed as something that made, and will make, our lives better. In the East, there is no expectation of that. Unhappiness is a natural part of life for Easterners. The following Taoist tale illustrates this view of life:

One day this farmer’s horse runs away, and his neighbor says to him, “I’m sorry to hear that you lost your horse.” “Well, who knows what’s good and bad?” says the farmer. The next day, the farmer’s horse returns to his stable, and it brought along another horse. The neighbor congratulates the farmer, but he replies, “Who knows what’s good and bad?” The next day, the farmer’s son rides the new wild horse, but gets thrown off the horse, and breaks his leg. Their neighbor offers his sympathy, but the farmer once again says, “Who knows what’s good and bad.” On the following day, his son gets drafted to the army, but is excused because of his broken leg. The story goes on forever in this manner.

When you look at life this way, the concept of “unhappiness” becomes relative depending on the time and the place. By preventing unhappiness, you might be preventing happiness that follows it. When I reflect on my own life, what I consider as beautiful memories are from the times I struggled. Those struggles made me stronger, wiser, and appreciate life more. After all, if it weren’t for human struggle, pain, and suffering, we would not have most of the great novels we appreciate today. What happens when we prevent ourselves from feeling unhappy, is that we make our lives boring. In other words, it is a surefire way of making us feel depressed. If we did not expect to be happy all the time, we naturally experience half and half. If we expect to be happy all the time, we end up getting the opposite result. This is the main cause, I believe, of the general trend towards unhappiness in America.

Most of the suggestions Schwartz presents in his book are ways to avoid feeling unhappy. His approach, I would argue, would have the opposite effect in the long run. He suggests, for instance, ways to avoid feeling regrets. He explains why we feel regrets, but leaves out the most important one: Because we expect to feel happy. Suppose I need to buy a cell phone for the first time in my life. After careful considerations, I choose one, but I become unhappy with it. I have no choice but to keep it for a year, but after that, I switch to another company. This time, it is much better. But, if it weren’t for the first company, I would not be able to appreciate how much better the second company is. I now have a range of experience that I could share with others. I am able to put various cell phones in a proper perspective. Had I chose the best cell phone the first time around, I would not have gained this wisdom.

We have to experience negative counterparts in order to fully appreciate positive counterparts. Someone who has never tasted bad wine does not know good wine either. In this way, if you prevent yourself from experiencing unhappiness, you would eliminate your chance to appreciate happiness at the same time. You would guarantee your life to be dull and mediocre. The problem of choice does not lie in making the wrong choice, but in our expectation of feeling happy about every decision we make. If we want to appreciate life fully, we should expect (in fact we should want) half of our decisions to be wrong. In this sense, if you want to make the process of decision-making easier, just flip a coin. I am not kidding; I often randomly choose things in my life. When I chose my college, after I narrowed down my choices to a certain degree, I decided that whoever responded first would be my college. I figured, “Who knows what’s good and bad?” And, it all worked out fine.