Choice, Paradox, and Regret.

Many people in western society don’t know what they want. We say we want a car, or the newest iWhatever, or a life on a beach. But how many of those things are truly our desires, as opposed to what we are told to desire by our society and the marketing machines lying therein?

A very wise friend of mine had an interesting revelation. We in North America have too many choices – our very lifestyles face us with the paradox of choice.  What he meant was that we are so stimulated with choices in our day to day lives that we go into a mental lockdown and end up choosing none of them!  Or at least regretting the choice that we have made…isn’t that unfortunate!  (Here is Barry Schwartz to clarify what exactly the paradox of choice is if you need it: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html)

You probably know dozens of people who are unsatisfied with their current lifestyle, and will never be satisfied because there COULD be something better out there. We don’t know what it is…but we have a plethora of outside influences telling us what it might be.

Here is an interesting 20 minute video of synthetic happiness and some theories on regret by Dan Gilbert:  http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

So how do we avoid this regret of all the choices we DIDN’T choose?  Perhaps we have to limit our choices to a now-or-never option without looking back.  Here is the real question in my mind:  Does this merely turn us into a blundering “come what may” buffoon with no desire to rise up and make changes in our lives or the world?  I suppose the difference between these two cases would lie in the happiness we derive from what we are currently doing.  If we are inherently unhappy with what we are doing then a change needs to be made.  If, on the other hand, we are unhappy due to the choices we are faced with…then perhaps we should remove those choices ourselves.

This paradox of choice can be observed throughout many aspects of our society.  Look at Apple products, for example.  For a brand that aims to be simple, neat and tidy, is there any wonder that they achieve significant market penetration through such straight forward products?  They have the iPhone 1, 2, 3, and 4.  (I’m of the opinion that the 4S was a sorry attempt at an iPhone 5 that they realized they couldn’t pass off as a new model late in the game).  Their products may have a few varying harddrive sizes, but in terms of other technical jargon, all products are the same.  Is this in the technical interest of the customer?  Of course not, a wider range of product variability and pricing would suit a larger range of customers – but Apple is not targeting the tech-savvy, detail reading customer.  They are appealing to the simplicity of the marketing behind pure numbers.  And it works.  How many thousands of people out there will clamor to upgrade their iPhone 16 to the latest and greatest iPhone 17 in a few years?

Two lessons I have learned in North America

Lesson #1:  Money does not make you happy.

Lesson #2:  Most people in our society don’t realize this fact.

You hear it all the time, on the radio or at your family Christmas gathering.  “If only I won the lottery, I would…”  It could be anything.  “Buy that ferrari”, or  “live on a beach forever”.  Sadly, it is doubtful that that ferrari would keep them happy for very long, and they probably could live on a beach forever if they actually sold their house and moved to a more affordable country.  Perhaps they would if that was actually what they wanted to do.  But I am not convinced of that.  I think if that person won the lottery, they would stay at home and have the same problems as they always had, if not more of them.  Some people even say it straight up.  “If I won the lottery, I would be happy,” they say.  They’ve almost got it…except they’re working at the problem from the wrong end.

There is one small secret that everyone seems to miss out on.  It’s not very difficult.  But for some reason it eludes many of us.  Ready for it?

Happiness comes from within.

It should be your goal.  Your means and your end.  Forget money, cars, beaches…all of those things are a means to happiness.  If you boil it all down to the basic reason you want them, you will find that all you really want is happiness.  Even things like success, prestige, fame – all of these fuel your happiness, your satisfaction that you are getting what you want out of life.  I am not saying to ignore these things, merely that you should recognize that it is only when happiness becomes your means will you be satisfied with your end, whatever it may be.

It may sound like a wishy washy self-help book you browsed through on the shelf at the bookstore…but maybe there’s a reason they are a multi billion dollar a year industry.  Because they are right.  At least on that point.