Why Too Much Freedom Makes Us Unhappy

Back in the 90s, there were about 7,000 items in your average supermarket. That’s already a lot of stuff to choose from, but today, that number is as high as 50,000. That’s 50,000 choices, 50,000 yeses or nos — from one trip to the grocery store.

Given there are many more important things than doing our daily shopping, and almost each of them comes with a similarly outsized wealth of options, who wouldn’t feel stressed?

A nifty little concept to capture this anxiety we feel when we have too much freedom is FOMOfear of missing out.

  • Can’t decide which stocks to buy? FOMO.
  • Wait till the last minute to pick the best event to go to? FOMO.
  • Have a hard time committing to a relationship? FOMO.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains how too much choice leads to four conditions that reduce our happiness. And they’re all rooted in FOMO.

1. Analysis Paralysis

It’s easier to pick one out of two meals than one out of 50. With more options, we spend more time analyzing and tend to get stuck. Often, we’ll choose to do nothing at all for a long time, and dragging your heels never feels good.

2. Anticipated Regret

If there are millions of options, you should be able to find the perfect one, right? Wrong. Perfect almost never exists. But with so much choice, we think it has to, and therefore face immense pressure to get each choice right.

3. Postdecision Regret

This imagined perfect choice sticks with you long after you’ve decided. So no matter what you pick, if you had too many options at the time you made your call, you’ll be more likely to regret the choice later — and think it’s your fault.

4. Escalated Expectations

The more choice we have, the higher our expectations become. Objectively, we might be able to pick a pair of better-fitting jeans out of a selection of ten rather than just three. But subjectively, we can still feel worse, because our expectations have risen even more in comparison. With ten pairs available, better isn’t enough anymore. Again, they would have to be perfect.

Since it creates these four conditions and thus puts a lot of psychological pressure on us, FOMO is at the heart of modern-day unhappiness. With FOMO, even the tiniest, most irrelevant choice can balloon into a full-blown existential crisis. But instead of constantly solving these, we should fix the root cause. We should start fighting FOMO.

The first step of doing so is recognizing it as it happens. When you find yourself hesitating or taking unusually long to make a choice, sit with the discomfort for a second. Probe it with questions. Why is this so hard? What is stopping me from moving forward here? Is this an important issue? Or could I flip a coin and wouldn’t care much about the outcome?

The more you do this, the more “important” decisions you’ll expose as actually near-meaningless. And with each one you unmask, an idea becomes clearer and a new belief begins to form: FOMO makes absolutely no sense.

Not all of us remember simpler times pre-smartphones, pre-internet, even pre-computers. But, whether you’re lucky enough to do so or not, remember: we used to make do with what we had in almost all areas of life.

When I was a kid, I had to call my friend’s house to arrange a playdate. We set a time and then we showed up. And when we went home, we had to stop talking. We might not see each other again for a week. And everything, all of that, was perfectly okay. Today, the sheer image of all the uncertainty in this might feel depressing. Will he pick up the phone? Will she have time? What was he doing all of last week?

Back then, there was no internet to stay connected 24-7. But there was also no issue of who and what to stay connected with 24-7. There were also only ten pairs of shoes at the store, only three cars in your price range at the local dealer, and only two girls you liked in your local peer group. None of it meant the end of the world. In fact, as we now know, it made us happier.

So no. We don’t need to obsess over every detail of our lives. We don’t need to get every pizza topping right. Forget FOMO. Don’t let freedom hijack your brain. Don’t let it fool you into false importance. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still small. And in this smallness is where happiness lies.

Find JOMO. The joy of missing out. In a world that’s too full, letting go is reason to celebrate not cringe. Whenever you’re limited, be glad you have fewer options. Say thank you, pick something, and move on. And when you’re faced with a big selection, define some criteria. Find what meets your standards, and then don’t look back.

50,000 items at the supermarket. The world has become a big place. But that’s no reason to allow it to turn you into a nervous wreck. You can engage with all this choice, but you can also decide not to. You can shrink your option-circle. Make one choice to eliminate 1,000. Be small on purpose. And not buy into “more is always better.”

No matter how many items they stock, you can set your own boundaries. You’re in control. Use it. Exercise it. Discipline is happiness. Not just at the grocery store, but it sure is a great place to start.

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